It was a performance for a time of austerity, devoid of the ambition that will always be hoped for from those of a country whose psyche, where the national football team is concerned, is skewed by the act of having bestowed the sport on the rest of the world. By the end, the English whistles issued around the stadium, urging the referee to blow his own, in a way that acknowledged the truth that this was a game of artists versus artisans. And yet for all that, this is a result to be deeply grateful for.
The artist in the English ranks was in the dugout, his face hot and his hair flat from the evening's stifling inactivity and the hope for England has always been to keep their chances alive for the moment when Wayne Rooney is back. For that reason, a draw against a French side glittering with all the benefits of its Clairefontaine academy is a very fine one.
In part, there is old-fashioned industry to thank for that. In the second half, Steven Gerrard played a substantial part in shutting off the lustrous football that had made Laurent Blanc's players an irresistible force as the first reached an end. If there was a motif for the game's later stages then it was James Milner, socks around his ankles, chasing up and down his right flank, sticking to that zonal play Roy Hodgson had drilled into him.
England could also be grateful for France's failure to make more of their possession. Blanc reflected later that his players "were good enough not to lose the game, but not good enough to have won it," which seemed slightly harsh but they flattered to deceive and in long periods were average. And there are reasons to feel gratitude to John Terry. After his very poor performance against Germany in Bloemfontein during the World Cup two years ago, playing on his less familiar right side then, as last night, this was a very big test. He and Joleon Lescott were outstanding.
The pre-match choreography featured hod-carrying steelworkers, in the local style, which seemed to foretell what might be about to follow from an England side drilled to put defence first. After a bright 20 minutes for them, the first half played out almost entirely as expected; France finding expression through their wonderfully talented offensive players – of whom Samir Nasri slithered like an eel in between the lines – while England sought to take what they could get on the counter-attack.
The task for Hodgson's side was always to try to force Franck Ribéry deep, if necessary doubling up on him to block his path, and to observe the watchfulness of sentinels when it came to Karim Benzema. The margins for error were pitifully thin, as time would tell.
The result was not entirely a display of the Danish, Portuguese or Chelsea proportions. England were not entirely under siege. When they could cast off Hodgson's grid and break free they created the first clear-cut opportunity when Ashley Young was allowed time to fasten on to Scott Parker's pass, advance into five yards of space and bisect the centre-backs. Milner, racing on to his pass, took a slightly heavy first touch and when he reached it, the angle allowed him only to find the side netting. It was the sort of geometrical impossibility which Rooney, who had watched the warm-up forlornly, glugging on his water, might have fancied.
But the preoccupation for Hodgson if his side are to prosper and win games at this tournament must surely be the failure to offer little attacking threat beyond set-pieces. The old problem of keeping the ball as England work triangles up the field is the same as ever. There was too much one-touch football at times and things broke down. Neither was there any offensive width, despite the encouraging selection of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. "It was frustrating at times without space out wide, but the way they play is to overload the midfield," the Arsenal player reflected later. Fittingly, it was with a hod carrier's set-piece that Gerrard offered to demonstrate in one moment all the failings suspected in the French defence. After Patrice Evra's clumsy foul on Milner, Gerrard raked in a free-kick from the right touchline as if the place were Anfield, and with the French central defenders mesmerised by Danny Welbeck, Lescott leapt in ahead of Alou Diarra to head England into the lead.
That was never going to be that, of course. France were soon back at it, when a Nasri free-kick from the right brought a powerful header from Diarra which Joe Hart parried well. And the lead was erased inside eight minutes when the disciplines that Hodgson has been engraining in his players failed them for once. Gerrard and Parker perhaps followed their instructions a little too intently, sitting deeper than they might, which is why, after Florent Malouda, Evra and Ribéry laced passes together incisively, Nasri could step just inside the left side of the area and fire home. Parker and Gerrard needed to push out and leave the defence to it. Hart was perhaps unsighted by Gerrard as he leapt in belatedly to block, and Parker patrolling behind him. But letting the ball sneak in at his near post did not conform to his own high standards.
The second half did not nearly match the first. As the French pushed on, England formed ranks. "They try to drag your back players out of defensive positions and if you leave those positions too early they skip past you with the ball or pass behind you," Hodgson said. "It was important our midfielders shunted across." Lescott deflected away Yohan Cabaye's half-volley, teed up by Benzema, and the striker's own shot was headed over by Gerrard. Parker leapt into a fearsome block. Blanc was agitated by the end and Hart punched the air. Rooney, waiting for his moment, blew out his cheeks.
Scorers. France: Nasri 39. England: Lescott 30.
Substitutes: France Ben Arfa (Cabaye, 84), Martin (Malouda, 85). England Defoe (Oxlade-Chamberlain, 77), Henderson (Parker, 78), Walcott (Welbeck, 90).
Booked: France none. England Oxlade-Chamberlain, Young.
Man of the match Debuchy. Match rating 6/10.
Possession: France 60% England 40%.
Attempts on target: France 7 England 1.
Referee N Rizzoli (Italy). Attendance 42,000.
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