Solid at the back, but can England find forward spark against Sweden?
Hodgson needs to add an attacking edge to his rigid system against Sweden rather than just wait for Rooney
Roy Hodgson does not set much store by match statistics. It has always struck him that Prozone's numerical differences between his own team and the opposition are minimal after a defeat. Evidence that another team might have outrun his own has never bothered him either, though the incredible 16.1km David Beckham ran against Greece at Old Trafford before scoring the legendary goal which took England to the 2002 World Cup finals happens to be a figure which has always lodged in his mind as exceptional.
The numbers from England's 1-1 draw with France in Donetsk on Monday night do bear some close scrutiny, though, and while the overall performance was more encouraging than Patrice Evra's curmudgeonly and, frankly, flawed suggestion that Hodgson's players had performed like Chelsea against Bayern Munich, they reveal an England entrenched in Hodgson's defence-first philosophy. "I don't know if we can win tournaments playing like that," Scott Parker said.
Ashley Young managed seven successful passes all night in the Donbass Arena and only one of those found Danny Welbeck, the man with whom he was expected to combine. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain found a team-mate 11 times – not impressive – and the French pass completion rates was pretty much double those of their equivalents like Young (47 per cent), James Milner (48 per cent) and Oxlade-Chamberlain (46 per cent).
Hodgson reflected late on Monday night that it was his players' attempts to be too sophisticated that was the cause of the slack passing. "It's in the final third, isn't it, really?" he replied to the question of where there most might be some improvement. "Some very promising counter-attacks… broke down because we tried a one-touch pass to finish it off rather than taking that extra touch.
"The French were just the opposite. They don't play a lot of one-touch football around the penalty box. They play a lot of two, three touches, holding on to the ball and asking another question..."
Except it's not quite as simple as that. What strikes you most about the numbers is the sheer paucity of passes England attempted. Only Steven Gerrard and Glen Johnson sought out team-mates more than 50 times, while for France only Alou Diarra passed fewer than 50. Uefa's unyielding stats charts also map a player's average position in each 15-minute period of the game. Gerrard, England's best midfielder and one who craves a freer role, was sitting virtually on top of Parker for large periods.
What we are witnessing is an England struggling to break out of the two-bank defensive grid which Hodgson adheres to so messianically. He feels that they will develop the confidence to do so. "Maybe [it's] to do with the fact that a lot of players out there haven't got loads and loads of games behind them and we must make allowance for the fact that everyone was quite nervous going into the game," he said of England's diffidence.
"We didn't want to be going away from the France game coming away with a heavy defeat, so that our chances of carrying on in the competition would've been damaged in the very first game."
The result was certainly far better than The Sun's ironic banner headline: "Yippee! A draw!" It's more gratifying to be reflecting on a 1-1 score than say a Harry Redknapp England side scoring and then getting hit by a couple of sucker punches, leaving Harry to reflect quite heroically that his boys "went for it". But what Hodgson does not mention in his assessment, of course, is that his central midfield is creaking and painfully short of anyone who might enable the side to keep the ball in triangles and allow England to carry the ball upfield.
The physical toll on Parker, who arrived with the squad nursing an Achilles injury, is a source of mounting concern. The abiding image of him resisting the England bench's attempts to substitute him on Monday evening, before his rolling arms gesture finally signalled cramp and that enough was enough, bore out the impression of an England midfield already on their last legs after being denied Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry and Jack Wilshere. The sight of Jordan Henderson limbering up did not raise great hope. Michael Carrick, the only other midfielder who might be relied on to make simple 25-yard passes for England, is ready to resume duties next season – three months too late.
"Myself and Steven just have to keep going. We have to, don't we?" Parker said. "If selected I'm sure we can keep going. There's not a lot of cover in midfield, but I'm sure we'll be fine." That said it all.
The issue of whether Gerrard, 32, and Parker, 31, can keep going is "the big question," Hodgson admitted. "I don't think I will be the only coach asking that about his players in this tournament but obviously those two are both over 30 years of age, they both had to work really, really hard. But I'm sure I'm not going to be the only coach wondering 'can they do it every four days?'"
Sweden's defeat to Ukraine helps Hodgson, forcing Erik Hamren's side to come at England in Kiev's Olympic Stadium on Friday and opening up space to run at a defence whose best competitor is Olof Mellberg, which must give them hope. The problem is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, of whom Peter Schmeichel tweeted during Sweden's match that he had "played 24 mins at Euro 2012 and already he looks like the best player there!" His ability to drop off, get into holes and link play will be a worry for Gerrard and Parker. Left-winger Christian Wilhelmsson only plays in the Saudi league but caused trouble as a substitute against Ukraine and could stretch Glen Johnson.
England need goals on Friday. Hodgson does not want a stalemate, sending him back to a rabid eastern Ukrainian cauldron requiring a win against the co-hosts. This is the incentive for providing a better service for those players who can hold the ball, for them stepping up their performances and for getting Ashley Cole out of his own half in a way he did not against France.
Hodgson will not provide a different strategy as he sends his players out in search of an offensive dimension. He will do what he has always done: drill his two banks of four until the act of dashing back to assume the team shape the moment possession is lost is something they dream about – and relying on a few talented offensive players simply to do their thing. His logic has always run that the front men will get the odd chance or two and that is all you need to win a game.
There will be the odd goal on Friday and perhaps even two, but minimal lustre. Little that screams "success" from the stats sheets. But then the good bit arrives; the single England player who can rip up the system and provide a moment of brilliance. "The ace in the hole" is how Hodgson describes him – recalling the 1951 Billy Wilder picture about the cynical, disgraced reporter who stops at nothing to regain a job on a major newspaper. This particular ace won't need to do much persuading. Deep down, everyone's just waiting for Wayne .
England's top passers:
Scott Parker 44 out of 48 (92%)
Glen Johnson 39/45 (87%)
John Terry 36/42 (86%)
Steven Gerrard 31/37 (84%)
Joleon Lescott 30/36 (83%)
France's top passers:
Samir Nasri 85 out of 93 (91%)
Franck Ribry 75/82 (91%)
Yohan Cabaye 65/71 (92%)
Patrice Evra 65/69 (94%)
Florent Malouda 63/66 (95%)
Latest in Sport
- 1 Autistic teenager beaten up by bullies makes them watch 20-minute video about autism
- 2 Greece debt crisis explained: A history of just how the country landed itself in such a mess
- 3 People all over the world are getting semicolon tattoos to draw attention to mental health
- 4 Greek debt crisis: Yanis Varoufakis's funniest (and most memorable) quotes
- 5 Swedish minister gives strongest case yet on why EU should stop turning away asylum seekers