Roy Hodgson took charge of England for the first time in a competitive game, and what a time to do it – a European Championship group game against France. It could hardly have started better with Joleon Lescott heading the Three Lions ahead on the half-hour mark. But France’s reply was swift through Samir Nasri and England faded after the break. We look at what we found out from events in Donetsk.
There will be plenty for Hodgson and his France counterpart Laurent Blanc to think about. The England boss will surely be pleased by the defensive shape of his side, while Blanc can be satisfied that his men dominated possession. But both coaches know there will need to be an improvement if they are to progress deep into this tournament. Let’s have a look at some of the talking points that emerged from Monday’s game.
It’s worth remembering how inexperienced many of these England players are. Even senior professionals such as Scott Parker, Ashley Young and Lescott are playing at their first major international tournament. Others such as Joe Hart and Theo Walcott, who briefly came off the bench, have been non-playing members of World Cup squads but never saw the field of play, while Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will feel better for their first taste of tournament action. There were signs of nerves early on with Hart dropping a straightforward cross and Lescott erring in possession. But all of the players came through the test and should be more confident as Euro 2012 progresses.
The evidence of Hodgson’s lengthy work on the training ground was there in England’s performance. The two banks of four were in place and often no more than 10 yards apart. It is surely the right approach given that John Terry and Lescott are far more comfortable defending deep and heading balls away rather than being forced to play on the half-turn. But occasionally – and crucially for the France goal – the desire to ensure the opposition played their football in front of England proved costly. Steven Gerrard was one of seven players effectively covering just one man in Karim Benzema and the skipper stood off Nasri far too much, allowing the midfielder to fire home.
It was Hart’s first international tournament and the Manchester City shot-stopper put in a mixed, mostly positive performance. The 25-year-old’s first taste of the action was dropping the ball as he came for a cross but he soon looked assured, saving Yohan Cabaye’s long-range effort. He then got down well at his post before producing an acrobatic save to deny Alou Diarra’s header. But he will feel he could have done more to stop City team-mate Nasri’s equaliser, which beat his despairing dive. He was then solid in the second period, including saving Benzema’s low, long-range shot at the death.
France were content to play a patient and cautious build-up with little desire to inject any kind of urgency to the play in their own half. But Blanc’s men look a different side when Franck Ribery and Nasri get on the ball. The attacking midfield duo have real quality in tight situations and looked well capable of unlocking England’s defence on a regular basis if only they had received more support. Benzema cut an isolated figure at times and it just needed a little more ambition from France – an overlapping full-back or two, perhaps, in order to win the game. That might be something Blanc looks at in the remaining group matches.
Deadball situations have been a traditional strength of England teams. With less obvious quality in this particularly vintage, Hodgson has adopted a more cautious approach and that only serves to make set-piece opportunities even more important. England certainly have the targets in the box. Terry has more than 50 career goals to his name, while Lescott’s goal tally once reached double figures in a season with Everton. Gerrard and Young are good crossers of the ball and the captain produced the delivery for Lescott to open the scoring. Blanc would have known all about the threat but his team were unable to prevent it.
Maybe it was the heat in Donetsk, the rigours of a long season or the fact they had been working hard all match, but towards the end there were a lot of tired legs in the England team and Parker, in particular, had run himself into the ground. Keeping hold of possession for sustained periods has never been a strength of the Three Lions and England need to find a way to stay fresh in the latter stages. Substitutions can help, of course, and it is perhaps surprising that Hodgson did not make his first change until the 77th minute.
Justification for Johnson
It’s fair to say the England right-back has had his critics. In some ways he has been a victim of rising to prominence at such a young age – he made his senior international debut as a teenager. As a result, after nearly a decade around the England set-up he is a player some would happily have jettisoned despite being just 27 years old. Micah Richards may have emerged as a cause celebre after being ignored by Fabio Capello and now Hodgson, but take nothing away from Johnson – he delivered a composed performance and stood up well to the challenge of facing Ribery. He certainly did enough in Donetsk to justify his selection.
The decision to play the Manchester United youngster in the forward role had been one of the key decisions Hodgson had to make about his team. Andy Carroll offers a very different threat to defences but Hodgson’s choice of Welbeck was vindicated by this performance. The 21-year-old provided excellent movement, brought others into play and frequently dropped deep to get involved in the build-up play. Indeed, Welbeck and Young regularly interchanged positions – a flexibility to England’s approach that would not have been possible with Carroll in the team.
Young was cast in the role of Manchester United team-mate Wayne Rooney and put in a mixed performance. Going forward, the 26-year-old produced a superb pass to release James Milner through on goal early on, who then shot agonisingly wide. He again released the same player through the middle with an accurate pass in the second period. On a defensive note, his tackling could have been better and he picked up a needless yellow card for a late challenge on 71 minutes.