England are through to the Quarter Finals of Euro 2012 as the winners of Group D, but the jury is still out on whether their style of play should be applauded or criticized.
On the one hand, England’s seven points were gained with a rigid and unimaginative 4-4-2 system which relies on compact defense and a counter-attack that depends heavily on wing play. Without a doubt, the Ukrainians were the better, more fluid and creative side. Had the hosts brought their shooting boots and the fifth official made the correct call (cue the goal-line technology debate), then every article written about England this evening would have a very different tone.
On the other hand, England could be praised for finally accepting and playing within their limitations. With very little time to mould a team, Roy Hodgson has come into the Three Lions set-up without any delusions of his side’s capabilities and does not seem apologetic for a tactical system which values substance over style. Why should he be? England just topped an extremely tough group.
Even so, there are still concerns within the system. With such a concentrated structure, meant to let the other team have the ball, the lines of defense can bend, but MUST NOT be broken. At times, it was too easy for the home side as they worked the ball out wide and then sliced through the defense either by cutting inside or finding a player checking into the pocket of space to receive a simple diagonal pass.
Oleg Gusev was particularly adept at creating space on the wing before venturing inside, while Yevhen Konoplyanka fashioned more than one attempt on goal by picking the ball up along the touchline and sailing inside. Meanwhile, England had their hands full in the middle as well with Andriy Yarmolenko adding variety to the Ukranian attack by choosing to run at the Three Lions on the dribble.
In possession, England lacked that dynamism going forward. Glen Johnson and, in particular, Ashley Cole are top class attacking outside backs, but with Gusev and Konoplyanka constantly marauding down their flanks, they couldn’t get forward. In fact, Johnson didn’t venture forward until the 23rd minute. His first foray into the opposition half opened up space for Steven Gerrard to send the cross from which Wayne Rooney should have opened the scoring.
That meant the onus was on Ashley Young and James Milner to create down the wings. Milner’s lack of speed meant most of his passes went in a negative direction. Young knows thing or two about beating his marker, but his role was all too predictable to the opposing defender.
In the early going, all of England’s attacks were carried out in a very low gear. The only urgency generated in the midfield and final third came from the returning Rooney. He created the side’s first opportunity by coming back to receive the ball before laying it off one touch and sprinting 45 yards into the box where he just missed getting on the end of the resulting cross.
Rooney’s goal early in the second half came because Milner took on his man for the first time, beating him and earning a corner. From the resulting set piece, Gerrard beat his marker with a clever slight of foot (the most imaginative piece of play conjured up by an England player on the dribble all night) before playing in a superb cross for Rooney to plunder at the back post.
Nevertheless, there was no diversification to the England attacks. Very little combination play or interchanging of positions, which is allowed, even in the less fluid structure of a 4-4-2.
As the match wore on, England’s two lines of four were stretched and Ukraine had their chances, none more so than in the 62nd minute when Artem Mileskiy took down a long ball and exchanged a quick set of passes with Marko Devic putting the latter through on goal. Joe Hart got a piece of the shot and John Terry cleared the ball (eh...er...) off the line, but the pace of Terry and Joleon Lescott was completely exposed.
The stretching of the lines opened up pockets of space and Ukraine looked like taking advantage. Good movement and quick passing created room for Konoplyanka to have a thunderous crack in the 74th, which Hart did well to beat away.
With this criticism, it must be said that England had a plan and executed it with minimum fuss. Gerrard is leading by example and his services in this tournament are world class, already leading to two of England’s five goals. Scott Parker is playing like Superman in the middle. His shielding play in front of the back four is truly the glue that’s holding this system together.
Theo Walcott is proving a handful for tired defenses and a very different look to James Milner while Danny Welbeck and Andy Carroll are not just contributing now but also look to be good options for the future.
Perhaps it’s my desire to see teams win while making football look like an art form. To not only win, but to do it with flair. In the end it is still all about the result. What worries me more is that I feel a better side such as Italy may be able to really exploit the weaknesses in this England side. The Three Lions deserve their praise, but its public and its media should not let euphoria all of a sudden bring about grandiose illusions of what this group is capable of.
If England do go on to win the European championships, no one on the island will care how it was done. After 46 years, football will have “finally come home.” But to a world wide audience and admirers of the beautiful game, their victory would no doubt feel more Greece 2004 than Spain 2008.
Follow Marc Serber on Twitter: @SoccerSerber
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