Too soon to judge Roy Hodgson's cautious England
England did what they needed to in Ukraine, and Roy Hodgson’s delight in a 0-0 draw was clear as he congratulated his players as they left the pitch. England’s fate remains in its own hands and the players showed enough determination and spirit to hold off a surprisingly limp Ukraine comfortably. The problem is that England has historically ended up relying on pride and passion and, against top class opposition that is not enough.
It’s not even clear that England’s defensive shape was particularly good. In the first half particularly, Ukraine caused problems wide, with the overlapping runs of Ukraine’s two full-backs Artem Fedetskiy and Vyacheslav Shevchuk a persistent threat. Ashley Cole at one point found himself dragged to the right edge of England’s box, forcing Steven Gerrard to cover him at left-back. He then, whether through a misjudgement or deliberately dummying, let Yevhen Konoplyanka’s cross pass over him, a surprised Fedetskiy miscuing the ball wide.
As England’s own attacking ambitions waned, so they became more secure and, while Ukraine probably should have had a penalty in the first minute as Joe Hart tripped Roman Zozulya, and then went close with a second-half free-kick, there was rarely a sense of danger. Given Ukraine had scored 18 goals in four previous competitive games under Mykhaylo Fomenko (nine in three if San Marino are discounted), there is probably credit due for that.
It should also be said that England’s defence has been its real weak point recently. It looked extremely pen in beating Scotland 3-2 in a friendly last month, and leaked soft goals in away games against both Montenegro and Poland. If Hodgson chose to focus on restoring solidity, he can hardly be blamed, and he was right to point out afterwards that preparations have hardly been helped by seven injury withdrawals. This is the curse of the international manager: players seem to feel knocks far more keenly before England games than before club matches, and the result is that consistency of selection – and thus the mutual understanding that might generate fluency – is impossible.
There is another truth lurking beneath that, which is that international football is very much the poor relation these days. Spain shine, but that is as much because Barcelona shine as anything else – and even then their football is a cautious simulacrum of the Barca method. To play the sort of fast attacking football that predominates at the top end of the club game takes time, takes players to understand one another’s games, takes practise. International coaches get an ever-changing squad of players for four or five days of training and two matches once a month. Little wonder the football is often scratchy.
England were poor in terms of ball retention and chance creation, perhaps even unacceptably poor or poorer than most. But it’s hardly a surprise; it’s just how international football is. Perhaps they won’t have the quality to break down Montenegro and Poland and get the wins they need next month to reach Brazil, but at least for now there was defensive resolve and the result Hodgson set out for. Only next month can his caution be judged.