England should stick two fingers up at purist snobs
Roy Hodgson's team have won few admirers with their style but they are right to play to their strengths, says Sam Wallace
The complaints about England started seven months ago, long before Roy Hodgson was in charge and some time before any notion the team would be without Jack Wilshere, Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry at Euro 2012. That was in November when Spain were beaten 1-0 at Wembley by an England team who patented the style adopted by Chelsea on the way to winning the Champions League.
Back then Cesc Fabregas observed that it was difficult to identify an England player who had performed well because they were "basically defending the whole game". David Silva confessed to being "surprised" that England had "defended with their lives". Xabi Alonso predicted it would be the same story "if we meet at the Euros". Xavi said, under normal circumstances, Spain would beat England "nine times out of 10".
The world champions, especially those who play for Barcelona, do not like being beaten and they take even greater offence when the opposition refuse to oblige by opening up. But the outcry back in November will be nothing like the response Hodgson's team can expect if tomorrow they edge their way past Italy to the semi-finals of Euro 2012 with a tough, uncompromising – if, at times, uninspiring – game-plan that has worked up until now.
A resentment of England under Hodgson, difficult to beat, gritty, determined, is lurking around the team in Krakow. Not among most of those of us who follow them all year round and are simply glad to see an England team that is well-organised and unified – not to mention through to the knock-out stages of the tournament – but certainly among the wider European audience. It is a form of snobbery and it has the potential to become more acute.
Hodgson's team are not playing anything like as defensively as Capello's side did in November when Frank Lampard's goal four minutes after half-time won the game. But Hodgson was clear yesterday that the game-plan would be about containing Italy, especially their talented midfield comprising Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, Claudio Marchisio and Thiago Motta – the latter remains an injury doubt.
Discipline was, Hodgson said "the sine qua non [essential element] of any football team". He was, one of the more seasoned reporters observed, the first England manager to use Latin in a press conference, and it was doubly appropriate given the opposition.
"Italy have Marchisio and De Rossi who are anything other than wingers," Hodgson said. "They are central midfielders for their clubs and go up and down the field in the same way that Gerrard and Parker do. We're going to have to be careful we don't get outnumbered in that area and they don't play around us, like we've seen them play around Ireland and, in parts of the game, against Croatia and Spain in their good moments."
The Spain game was a turning point, when an injury-hit England team – with Phil Jagielka, Phil Jones and Darren Bent all starting – took on what was pretty much the full might of Spain and won. It was the making of Parker's international reputation, confirming himself, along with Joleon Lescott, as an England player of some significance.
It also brought it home to England what was possible. Against Italy in Kiev tomorrow the challenge is the same. Hodgson said he will instruct his midfield to keep their shape narrow to deal with the Italian midfield and one of the two strikers will be asked to drop back in front of Pirlo. Much will rest on Parker, the epitome of England's new pragmatism.
"To be fair, at the end of the 90 minutes if we're still winning games I'm not too fussed," Parker said this week. "We all have a fascination with Spain and we all watch them. Since I've been around, they're possibly the best team I've ever seen. We all need to recognise our own qualities and strengths. I'd be lying to say we couldn't do a bit better going forward, but we're still winning games. Ultimately, in competitions like this, that's the most crucial thing."
Of course, this England team cannot play behind a portcullis forever, while other nations strive to build the figurative cathedrals, not if the Football Association harbours true ambition to transform the way the game is taught at junior levels. But it feels like the acceptance of what England are now, and a realism of what they do best, has contributed to the general sense of humility and application that has distinguished Hodgson's Euro 2012 squad.
Parker, a quiet, non-confrontational soul, in spite of his playing style, responded to a question about whether England would prefer to be a more expansive team thus: "Of course, but it's like anything: would you like to be ..." allowing the thought to hang in the air – leaving a room full of overwrought English football reporters contemplating how they might have done better with their lives.
"I understand what you're saying," he continued. "When I watch the best in the world, I want to be like them. But you are what you are, aren't you, and you have to make the best out of that. At this present moment, we're doing a good job."
Hodgson said that if England are beaten at Euro 2012 it would be a "sad day" for him and his players. They have set their expectations high now and they are not here to be praised for pluckiness. In the meantime, they are going to play the way that suits them best. Narrow in midfield, surround Pirlo and if that offends some sensibilities then it certainly beats being beaten 4-1 by Germany in Bloemfontein two years ago.
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