As they absorbed the implications of a home draw in the first real test of the 2014 World Cup qualifying programme, England's footballers yesterday looked beyond Wembley's broad acres for succour.
The old formula used to be "win at home + draw away = qualify". Not any more. Modern football at this level is so geared to counter-attacking that home advantage is sometimes no advantage at all. Teams sit deep, as Ukraine did, and look to score from transitions, as Ukraine did, switching the ball rapidly after Joleon Lescott gave it away to score within three passes.
In qualifying for Euro 2012, England took more points on the road than they did at home, where they were held by Switzerland and Montenegro. So did France, while Germany and Spain did not drop a point away from home, nor – as was the case with England's 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign – did the Dutch until their passage to the finals was secured. Indeed, in matches where qualification was at stake, England have won seven and drawn one of their last eight away games across two campaigns, and the draw was in Montenegro last October when England, needing a point to qualify, were leading despite Wayne Rooney's dismissal until the final minute.
"Home advantage has its advantages, but if a team comes and sets up very well against you it can be an evening of frustration," said Frank Lampard, whose late penalty on Tuesday night earned England their draw.
He added: "Ukraine are particularly suited for counter-attacking football because their wingers are quick, and when teams have got that they can sit back and cause you problems. The away game with Ukraine can be a completely different game. They have to come out and play by being at home and it creates a different game."
Indeed. Arguably the most memorable England performances in the last dozen years were those counter- attacking classics of Munich and Zagreb, starring Michael Owen and Theo Walcott respectively.
"If you lose the ball to teams like Ukraine they will hit you on the counter-attack," said Jermain Defoe. "But the way we're set up, with the two holding midfielders, we can pick up a lot of points away from home ourselves."
Roy Hodgson, who has overseen three wins in three away matches as England manager in Oslo, Donetsk and Chisinau, said: "Sometimes you think every time you drop points at home it is crucial, but I think with the team I'm working with here we are capable of getting results anywhere in the world, against any team, if they can play the type of football we are capable of."
That is a bold call but England's world No 3 status, while not justified by the sharp end of tournaments, does reflect the team's consistency in competitive matches through which the rankings are compiled. Excluding penalty shoot-outs (as Fifa does), England have lost only seven competitive games in 67 matches stretching back 10 years, with one of those defeats being a dead rubber as far as England were concerned.
Too often, however, England have lacked the creativity to win those games, a failing Lampard admitted was the case on Tuesday. "When a team sits back, which they did – they went man-to-man in midfield and tightened up at the back – maybe we need to show a bit more invention."
The disjointed nature of the team did not help. England started with five of the XI which narrowly defeated Ukraine at Euro 2012 in June, their opponents fielded nine survivors. Tom Cleverley and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are both relatively new to the side while these two matches against Ukraine and Moldova were Jermain Defoe's first starts for two years.
But injuries and unavailability are a fact of life for England managers. Given time on the practice field, as he will be at tournaments, Hodgson produces well-drilled teams. Operating on the hoof, as he is required to in qualification, it is harder to strike the balance between maintaining a tight defence and developing enough attacking pressure to penetrate organised opponents.
"It won't always click," said Lampard. "This is international football with difficult games. It's about trying to find the right blend. This was another night in that process."Reuse content