Nothing ruins joyous occasion like dour tactics. They can’t overshadow another call for goal line technology, but they obscure Wayne Rooney’s return. They can also put a rousing performance from John Terry on the backburner. Regressing to the approach he employed versus France, Roy Hodgson again proved himself the most important man on the field, even if he never stepped between the lines.
But England weren’t playing France. They were playing a team they were expected to comfortably beat, and while it would be a misnomer to suggest that didn’t control the match, they certainly let Ukraine have too much of it. The co-hosts ended with 71 percent of possession (per UEFA), outshooting England 16 to 7. It’d be nice if those shots were all speculative, but they weren’t. At the end of the match, both Joe Hart and Joleon Lescott had to save England, and that doesn’t even touch on the goal that should have counted. True, Ukraine were offside in the build up, but erroneous offside calls unfortunately happen. It doesn’t absolve your defense from preventing the goal. Thankfully, Terry ultimately did.
But it would be a mistake to place the close call entirely on the defense. When you give the other team too much of the ball, you’re playing with fire. Pure relentlessness will eventually lead to opportunities, if by no other means than chance. While the month Chelsea’s Champions League title has led to too much post hoc justification of these types of tactics, blind revisionism’s overlooking the most important parts of Chelsea’s success: Lionel Messi’s wastefulness; Mario Gómez’s wastefulness; Messi’s missed penalty kick; Arjen Robben’s missed penalty kick. Chelsea’s success is as cautionary tale as much sporting miracle.
Nobody doubts Chelsea were wise to employ their approach. Given their talent, they had better odds winning with a bad bet than the horrendous gamble of playing with Barcelona and Bayern Munich. England, however, haven’t faced anywhere close to that level of competition. If adopting the approach against France seemed like a paranoid mischaracterization of the French threat, cowering to Ukraine came off as a stubborn lack of imagination.
It also may have been a reaction to the Sweden match. When England tried to play with a modicum of ambition, they gave up two goals, finding themselves behind at the hour mark. Was that because England was trying to play with the ball? No. They had regressed to cowering after Andy Carroll gave them a first half lead. As was dissected post-match, one of England’s best spells of possession produced the winning goal. It was only after they went down 2-1 that they started seeking those spells.
Yet against Ukraine, they came out in their shell, which begs the question: What does England have to do to play some football? I don’t mean to imply what Hodgson is doing isn’t football – by context, it is. I’m using football more as a descriptor of style. For the 71 percent of the game England was without the ball, they didn’t do anything that required unique footballing skill. Without the ball, focused more on deterrence and maintaining their shape than balancing play, Hodgson took 10 world class footballers and asked them to do little more than 10 NFL defensive backs could do with minimal training. And that training might not even require a ball.
England had Wayne Rooney back, and they chose passivity. They had a weak opponent, and they chose passivity. Their opponent started its leading scorer (Andriy Shevchenko) and most creative midfielder (Sergey Nazarenko) on the bench, and they chose passivity. And when, for the first half, it looked like Ukraine were in a position to knock England out of the tournament, they persisted with passivity. Perhaps it’s safe to conclude this is Hodgson’s England, with further debate only providing pointless punditry that fills segment minutes and column inches.
And to think, 24 hours ago, we had reason to think things would be so much different. Reports Theo Walcott might start gave us reason to think that the Roy Hodgson we feared would start Stewart Downing opposite James Milner was some cruel figment of our Fulham, West Brom-fueled imaginations. This man gave Alex Oxlade Chamberlain a start, and now he’s ready to start Walcott and Ashley Young on the wings? I don’t know who this Roy Hodgson is, but I think I’m in love!
Last night, when writing for NBC Sports, I couldn’t contain myself, thinking of Walcott and Young joining Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney:
“This is absolutely amazing. I can’t explain how excited I am about this, which is bad, because I’m a writer (I get paid to explain how I feel). I just spent a good six minutes walking around my kitchen trying to get my head around the feeling. And I don’t even like England that much. Just the idea of watching the game with that constant, gut-hollowing anticipation that something amazing can happen? It’ll be like having Axl Rose back in his prime.”
Then Roy had to break my heart. He started James Milner. If you’re going to hint Walcott and then revert to Milner, go ahead and hit your head on a sink, develop the flux capacitor, use a DeLorean to go back to the mid-eighties and tell young Richard he’s getting a bicycle for Christmas. And when I stop running around the room, give me a box, say it’s clothes, and tell me that’s all I’m getting. Ignore the little boy’s tears, Roy. You know a sweater’s the safer option.
And the worst is yet to come. Over the next four days, the results will lead to a series of defenses. Hodgson is getting results, and you can’t argue with results.
But I’m sure I can, ye of clichéd faith:
Particularly against a team like Ukraine, Hodgson’s approach is far too reactive. It levels a field that should be tilted in England’s direction, leaving the game’s outcomes subject to the game’s phenomenological noise: a random missed assignment on a set piece; a harsh red card; an injury; a goalkeeper’s wobble; a horrible penalty call; or, as we almost saw today, a blown offside ruling or an error in judgment by a goal line official. You never press your advantages, and as a result, you’re less likely to build up the insurance it takes to withstand the blow of the game’s randomness. You wait for their opponent’s errors, and if they never come, you might as well be rolling weighted dice. Sure, you know what the outcome will be most of the time, but it’s ultimately out of your control.
Does this sound like a formula that beats Italy? Probably not, but as he does any time he puts a team on the pitch, Hodgson will give England a chance. It might not be the best chance, but it’s a still a chance.