While German tabloid Bild decried England’s performance yesterday as “ugly as Chelsea,” taking the obvious sour grapes aside, it’s hard to argue with the facts. England scored a set-piece header and spent the next 60 or so minutes in their own half running themselves into the ground, unlearning what most were taught growing up in the world’s most exciting league.
But there are other facts to consider, aside from the theoretical; could Roy Hodgson really have had England playing proper football in just two weeks? Would Fabio Capello have approached the game any differently? What about Harry Redknapp? Instead, let’s focus on the incontrovertible; England’s ideal XI yesterday would have featured a maximum of six players who actually ended up starting the match. Joleon Lescott can claim to be John Terry’s third-choice partner behind Rio Ferdinand and Gary Cahill, Danny Welbeck falls behind Wayne Rooney and Darren Bent as preferred options up-top, Kyle Walker is England’s best full-back and there’s clearly no point in mentioning Micah Richards, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain made his second senior start in his first competitive international game.
I did not enjoy yesterday’s game. Seeing players from England’s most expansive and exciting club sides restricted to filling the gaps between the two centre-backs in such contrived and negative formations as to resemble a page from Bobby Fisher’s Guide To Not Getting Beat, did not fill me with any sense of pride. But before Fabio Capello jumped-ship, England were on an almost parallel path to Laurent Blanc’s France, emerging from an abysmal World Cup campaign with a renewed sense of what needed to be done to inspire their respective populations to once again find pride in their national teams. Strong qualifying campaigns were assisted by new approaches to selection, Scott Parker and Jack Wilshere breaking-up the decade old Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard axis, Yohan Cabaye and Yann M’Vila forming France’s first affective central midfield unit post Patrick Vieira, with Karem Benzema and Theo Walcott, two young men hailed as their nation’s saviours before being ruthlessly chopped from their respective 2010 squads returning to their respective nations' warm embrace. The shame would come when the new England, having collapsed under the weight of the John Terry race-scandal, would succumb to the new France and we’d never really know how far the two had come.
So why didn’t France win? The Chelsea-esque defensive shape of England was always going to be hard to beat and ultimately that’s what stole the point for England, but the stats reveal a little more. Of the 16 long passes completed by France, 13 were flank to flank and nine were in their own half, meaning little to no penetration from any of their dynamic passing. Their three successful crosses from an attempted 23 show there was space behind the full-backs as James Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain consistently failed to double-up with Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole respectively, yet none of the three successful crosses, all from Ashley Cole’s left were decisive. Samir Nasri’s goal, drilled across a poorly sighted Joe Hart was born of frustration and a general lack of ideas. France have nobody to blame but themselves. The bitter asides of the most honourable patron saint of attacking football; Patrice Evra, will more than likely shift internally as the tournament progresses; if it hasn’t already.
England, with a manager taking charge of his first competitive game, injuries and bans meaning not even Gareth Barry was available for selection, lined-up against the new France, off the back of an 18 game undefeated run, in the most effective way any manager with just two weeks of preparation could. This is tournament football and England will have to make the minutes count as they hope to navigate Group D, taking the positives wherever they're to be found, to develop a spirit and confidence that may just manifest itself into a decent brand of football should the quarter finals ever arrive. England have nothing to be ashamed of.