Welcome, Euro 2012, to the England of Roy Hodgson. It’s safe to say that it’s not gung-ho so far.
Yet England’s approach seems to be working in the steady, unspectacular way associated with the new national coach. Most fans would have accepted an offer of a point before the team’s opening game against France – and a point was what they received Monday night.
It was a solid one, because the next two group games should not be as demanding. Certainly not in the case of Sweden, which Hodgson’s team takes on next. Ukraine, as joint host, is a less predictable quantity. But if England plays as it did in the Donbass Arena, we can expect the game’s birthplace to be involved in the knockout stages. They should accompany a France who, in taking their unbeaten sequence to 22 games under Laurent Blanc, are unrecognizable from the rabble that Raymond Domenech brought home from the World Cup in 2012.
England played in distinct phases. After appearing to let France have the lion’s share of the ball for half an hour, they broke and scored from a set play. To fall behind in such circumstances can be heartbreaking for an opposition. Not France though; they remained patient and superior in possession and, when Samir Nasri beat his Manchester City colleague, Joe Hart, at the otherwise excellent goalkeeper’s near post, got the minimum they deserved.
But England changed approach at the start of the second half, going forward, keeping the ball for long spells, and in the end a tie only slightly flattered them. Hodgson’s defense would have especially pleased him, not with hero Joleon Lescott, whose partnership with the controversial John Terry did much to limit the threat of Real Madrid’s on-fire Karim Benzema. The discipline of Steven Gerrard in front of the back four was another plus.
Where Hodgson was adventurous was in his team selection. The 18-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, son of former England winger Mark Chamberlain and nicknamed ‘’The Ox,’’ as much for his precocious power and tenacity and one half of his surname, started the game, as he did against Belgium in the final pre-tournament friendly. He didn’t achieve much but will have learned a lot, and tellingly praised by Gerrard afterwards, the captain paying tribute to Oxlade-Chamberlain’s attitude as well as his ability on the wing.
It was no surprise to hear Hodgson join the plaudits for Oxlade-Chamberlain, who seems already to have overtaken the more mercurial Theo Walcott – also of Arsenal, also a graduate of the Southampton training school and also a member of the Euro 2012 squad. But maybe the team will be freshened for the Sweden game. Hodgson said a few players were still recovering full fitness after end-of-club-season injury.
When he was asked how pleased he was to have begun his tenure – contractually envisaged to last more than four years, to encompass not only the World Cup in Brazil but the next European Championship in France – with three games without defeat, Hodgson hesitated even to address the concept of progress in three games. The questioner should have known better; Hodgson is a long-term man and he made the point by directing his audience to Blanc’s France; as Blanc, let it not be forgotten, began his reign in 2010 with a defeat by Norway.
That was how it happened at Fulham, the last English Premier League club where Hodgson had enough time to exert influence. Hodgson was never accepted at Liverpool, mainly due to the fans’ yearning for club legend Kenny Dalglish — who hardly lasted much longer as it turned out; and he did not stay as long as the board and fans would have wished at West Bromwich Albion. People forget that Fulham ended up having a dramatic run to the Europa League final.
England fans are a long way off even dreaming of finals. But we learned from their team’s tie with France which two teams will qualify from Group D, and that’s a start.
“It was only through a lot of hard work that France have turned things around,” said Hodgson. “It hasn’t happened overnight. And I would expect us to keep improving with time as well.”
If they do, there will be more exciting soccer than we saw in Dontesk. Well, from England, anyway.