Winning is what matters and winning is what England are doing. Another hard-fought, battling win came on Tuesday as England recorded their first win over a Euros host. This is becoming a tournament for English firsts with a first competitive win over Sweden already in the bag.
The all-important Group D decider pitted England with Ukraine. England struggled with only Steven Gerrard approaching his best. Fortunately, the result is most important thing and England achieved the right one. Whilst England got the win, the performance was not without problems and Roy Hodgson has some choice decisions to make for Sunday’s Quarterfinal.
Disjointed England Lack Discipline
The disciplined approach shown versus Sweden all but evaporated against Ukraine. Driven backwards throughout, Ashley Young struggled with Ukrainian right back Oleh Gusev’s marauding runs. The right hand side also failed to work properly with James Milner, furthest forward throughout his time on the pitch, leaving Glen Johnson isolated at right back. The team struggled to display a passing rhythm with the lack of structure proving detrimental.
Possession is the Name of the Game
The aim of football is simple; keep the ball and outscore your opponent. Therefore, possession and ball retention are of paramount importance. Unfortunately, these are the weakest traits in this current England side. France taught England a lesson in ball retention with a 92% passing accuracy. Laurent Blanc’s side attempting 690 compared to England’s 378. France monopolised the ball, enjoying 65% possession in the match.
The Sweden game saw a much-improved England with passes, passing accuracy and possession all increasing. This resulted in a more disciplined performance with England threatening in attack and strong in defence. The worry is just how easily Ukraine forced England back with Hodgson’s team attempting their least passes so far. The accuracy of England’s passing dropped to 81% with possession down at 43%. Better sides, such as Italy, will punish England’s possession problems. At the highest level, teams can ill-afford to see so little of the ball.
Comparing England and the other quarter finalists only serves to highlight England’s weaknesses. England average 413 passes per game, a total vastly inflated by the Sweden game (493). The only teams averaging less passes per game are the hardworking Greeks and the counter-attacking Portuguese. The problem for England is they do not have the same counter attacking threat, as Portugal and the Greek approach is too cautious for sustained success.
The average possession category is the one that hurts England most. Only Portugal (40%) average less possession than England (42%). Against an Italian side averaging 52% possession and 474 passes, England cannot afford to sit back and allows their opponents to dictate. Football is about possession, teams cannot win without it.
The Spanish are the benchmark the rest aspire to. The World and European Champions average 791 passes per game, over 200 more than the next best (France, 575) and a 70% possession average is the best by some distance. Spain’s ability to dominate possession is one of the main reasons for them being the leading force in International football.
Efficient and effective, England are doing just enough. However, as the matches become harder and the competition intensifies, England will need to improve on the finer, technical aspects of the game. Roy Hodgson voiced his concerns on England’s use of the ball after the Ukraine game; it is now on him and his players to put those words into action.
The Captain Leads by Example. . . Again
England’s stand out performer is Steven Gerrard. Gerrard continued where he left off against Sweden, being England’s best; once again. The floundering performances of his teammates only seemed to spur Gerrard on.
Against Ukraine, Gerrard attempted the most passes (53) with the best accuracy (91%) and his cross for Rooney gave him a third assist. Gerrard also made the most tackles (6) for England and only Terry (4) and Welbeck (3) made more interceptions (2).
Gerrard continues to lead the way for England on key passes, crosses and long balls. The biggest testament to Gerrard’s performance is the amount of key passes. The England captain made three key passes over the 90 minutes whilst the rest of the England team managed two. The longer the tournament goes on, the stronger Gerrard’s influence gets.
The return of Wayne Rooney dominated the build up with the Manchester United forward seeking his first tournament goal since Euro 2004. Rooney wiped his tournament slate clean in the second half with a header from a yard.
Despite his lack of match practice, Rooney remained heavily involved. No England player had more shots (4) and only three attempted more passes (33). Whilst this was not Rooney’s finest hour, his ability and influence on England should not be overlooked.
Problems Out Wide
With Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard working well in the midfield, England’s main cause for concern is the wide areas. James Milner, in particular, has struggled for form. Theo Walcott, anonymous against Ukraine and a live wire against Sweden, is pushing for Milner’s place.
Ashley Young has the left-sided spot but, after impressive showings in the warm up games, his form has tailed off. Suspect in defence and inconsistent going forward, Young’s place will surely be in doubt for the Italy game. During his three games, Young has only dribbled beyond two opponents with one of 11 crosses finding an England shirt.
With Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott showing promise in their brief outings, the current wide players need to improve and fast. With Italy and other better teams to follow, England cannot afford to carry any passengers.
A great deal of controversy arose from the Ukraine ‘goal’. Whilst the ball crossing the line is beyond doubt, the earlier offside makes it irrelevant. The officials made the correct call, albeit for the wrong reasons. One thing is certain; the goal line technology debate will continue.
Overall, the ability to grind out results is a bonus but performances are erratic with England switching from Jekyll to Hyde. The better sides will punish England without improvements. Although, having proven the critics wrong, the shackles are off and England can show their true potential.