Roy Hodgson’s England team started its World Cup 2014 Qualifying campaign with four points from the opening two games this week. But experience proved its worth as England’s new era faced its first real test against a well-organised and talented Ukrainian side at Wembley on Tuesday night.
The match was always destined to be an untidy book-end to a phenomenal summer of British sport given the skill and toil demonstrated by Andy Murray to clinch a historic first Grand Slam title in the early hours of Tuesday morning. The second longest final in US Open history got underway just hours after the British public bid a nostalgic farewell to the ‘greatest ever’ Olympic and Paralympic games, as the athletes took to the streets of London to soak up the last waves of incredible support.
For that reason Roy Hodgson’s England camp was afforded an unusually calm few days of preparation, something unheard of for an England manager about to take charge of his first competitive match at Wembley. The manner in which England comfortably dispatched Moldova last Friday was akin to a professional killing – quick, assured and quiet. The performance left no traces for the press to comb over in the days that followed.
Such a performance, combined with last month’s friendly victory over Italy – effectively achieved by England’s ‘second string’ – enabled Hodgson to brush aside concerns over the notable absentees from the squad. Injuries and illness which kept Terry, Walcott, Rooney and Ashley Cole from facing Ukraine for a second time this summer were batted away by Hodgson in the same manner that Boris Johnson said he could ‘just about get away with’ a gag about Britain’s Olympians not only helping to inspire a generation but also their role in the creation of one too, following well-documented hyjinx in the Olympic village.
Nevertheless, yesterday’s game highlighted that the experience of such players will still prove to be invaluable in the qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The match mirrored Hodgson’s ‘free hit’ at a largely unspectacular European Championships for England. It was a reminder of the untidy 1-0 victory over the same opponents at the beginning of a gluttonous summer of sport. Not only because of the familiar opposition but also because last night’s 1-1 draw brought an end to Britain’s home summer of sport in the same way that victory over Ukraine saw their European Championship dream fade in front of their own fans in Donetsk last June.
Home support aside, Ukraine is a well-organised international team with counter-attacking flare, as proved last night at Wembley. Their discipline remained throughout the game limiting England to a game of keep-ball at the back between Lescott and Jagielka for long periods of the match.
While it was refreshing to see that England refused to lose patience and pump it long, such is Hodgson’s determination to ‘play the right way’, the lack of technical ability in central defence was dealt with by the harsh reality of international football in the 39th minute. Desperate to move the ball on to the more technically ‘sound’ midfield anchors, Lescott hurried a pass to Lampard which was unwittingly intercepted by Ukraine who pounced on the mistake and, after a sweeping move across field, had the ball flying past Joe Hart into the top corner of the net. Konoplienka’s exquisite finish demonstrated the fine margins in international football and further highlighted the necessity of players in all positions to be of elite technical ability. Whilst there is no doubt that Lescott and Jagielka are robust defenders and top Premier League performers, their place within the squad should be limited to a back-up role. Hodgson faces a task over the next two years to bring defenders blessed with finer technical ability such as Gary Cahill, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones up to international standard throughout this qualifying campaign.
England must also be careful of placing too much responsibility on the young shoulders of Cleverley and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Their respective performances in the Olympics and the European Championships, in addition to last Friday against Moldova more than justified their inclusion in the starting line-up. However, they are in the very early stages of their careers and, as demonstrated on Tuesday, cannot be expected to make the difference in every game.
Indeed, last night it was the experience and calmness of Gerrard and Lampard when things were not going to plan – namely, their constant probing in the closing stages of the game and Lampard’s composure in dispatching the equalising penalty – which insured that England clawed their way back into the match to claim a hard-earned and valuable point.
Whilst sad to see that their individual attacking edge is not quite at the level that marked them out as two of the finest midfielders in world football several years ago, they seem to have accepted a more reserved, methodical role in the deeper-lying positions of the midfield trio and have worked extremely well together in the past two games. Both were by far the obvious choices for Man of the Match at Wembley on Tuesday night.
Perhaps the key to their finally being able to play well alongside each other is the organisation and vision of Hodgson. For the first time in several years England has developed a consistent system that allows a fluid style of play. It is not something many would have predicted after the rigid 4-4-2 that was enforced and adhered to in Ukraine and Poland at the beginning of the summer. The past three internationals have seen the team set up with the in-vogue 4-2-3-1.
More importantly, the personnel in the squad seem to have been picked to suit the system or to be able to make an impact from the bench where the system can be tweaked slightly without losing its essence. When the substitutions were made on Tuesday all the players knew exactly how to adapt, firstly with Oxlade-Chamberlain moving in from the left to replace Cleverley with the knowledge that Welbeck could operate on the left, as he has done in the same system for Manchester United in the past. With this organisation, players know exactly what is expected of them as will those who are absent from squads, such as Scott Parker, Jack Wilshere and Wayne Rooney, if and when they are called upon when fit.
It might not be far from the mark to suggest that this has coincided with the opening of the national football centre at Burton this month which will aim to establish an England blueprint to be followed and understood by all age categories and prospective full international England players.
And yet the impact of such a vision cannot be expected to take heed so soon. At Wembley on Tuesday there was a definite sense of concern at the options available from the bench as the game seemed to be slipping away from England. However, Hodgson’s faith in youth was repaid as Bertrand, Sturridge and particularly Welbeck made the desired impact to get England back into the game. Whilst the bench looked even sparser after their introduction to the field, the performance of the young trio assured the manager that they do have a role to play in this qualifying campaign.
Hodgson’s willingness to play, and even to start, the young and inexperienced when they are often consigned to the bench by their managers at club level is to be admired. An organised and consistent system will aid their transition to international football. However, last night’s close encounter served to further remind the manager of the importance of the wise heads and ageing legs of England’s former ‘golden generation’ along the road to Brazil 2014.
By Justin Peck