England’s warm-up games are over, but are England ready to step up to the European Stage?
Yesterday marked another win for Roy Hodgson as England overcame a Belgian side brimming with young promising prospects at Wembley thanks to a delectable chip from Danny Welbeck to score his first senior England goal on 36 minutes to secure a 1-0 win. However, though England may have won, many are questioning whether England will be able to compete with the ‘top’ sides in Europe on the back of two dull pre-tournament match performances.
Yesterday’s victory was of a similar essence to the victory in Oslo and as I was sitting high up in the gods, it soon became clear that exciting and attacking flair would be amiss in England’s performance; in fact, possession of the ball looked potentially hard to come-by. This was epitomised by the throwing of paper aeroplanes onto the Wembley turf; though mine didn’t quite reached the lower tier. Some perhaps forgot that a match was even taking place below them. This, accompanied by a premature Mexican wave early in the first half, epitomised England’s new style of play and the lacklustre approach England look set to take to Poland and Ukraine.
Nonetheless, credit should not be taken away from Belgium. They took control of possession and often the game, playing the ball around at will, however without any real purpose. The rotation of the front three, varying from Hazard to Witsel, to Mertens to Fellaini, proved both effective and detrimental to their attacking ambitions; confusing the ease to be marked by England however with no one to lead the line at times their attacks came to nothing. Belgium, who narrowly missed out on Euro qualification, are and have been beginning to look more of a side capable of reaching international tournaments, and it would be no surprise should they qualify for the World Cup in Brazil in 2014.
England however approached the game in a different manner, two rigid lines of four providing a barricade for Joe Hart’s goal, a clear preference of Hodgson to defence rather than attack. Roy Hodgson’s sides have been notorious for being difficult to beat, with Fulham and West Brom being prime examples. England too look set to be heading in that direction, though at what cost?
Going forward England never really posed a serious continued threat. Sporadic counter-attacks and occasional surges forward from first-time starter Chamberlain on the left and Milner on the right looked the Three Lions best hopes, with the goal ultimately originating from Dembele being caught in possession to allowed Young to thread a neat ball to Welbeck who dually applied the finish.
Nevertheless, the focus on ensuring Belgium didn’t score prevented England from searching for more to add to their tally, accompanied by an abundance of sloppy, slow and often unimaginative passing, with a lack of movement to match. However, the game plan worked, a second 1-0 win against two good sides ensuring two clean sheets – a lean defence is emerging; if only it had the forward play to accompany it.
As good as Norway and Belgium are, they are not amongst Europe’s elite. Should England want to compete amongst the very best then potency going forward has to improve, as well as ball retention.
It is becoming evident that England’s style is not going to be match dominating or samba football, instead reverting to gritty performances to grind out results, often not to the desire of the fans who want England to attack at will. But would those same fans complain if these resolute performances brought home the European Championships? I think not.
Do not get me wrong however; I don’t see England as real contenders – yet. The biggest test will come first, against a renewed 2010 World Cup-forgotten France. Should England emerge from that, though the omens aren’t great and it may require a bucket full of good fortune, with a positive result, then there is no reason why England can’t go all the way in a similar style to how Chelsea won the Champions League. The France match on the 10th June will decide whether England can be deemed as the Dark Horse of the competition, or not.