I was able to sneak away from work long enough to catch England’s Group D opener at the Dog and Duck pub, our neighborhood English pub (every neighborhood needs one), and I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by their performance against a French team with more talent at almost every position on the pitch. Roy Hodgson seems to have done the impossible: get England to execute a game-plan as a solidified unit. It probably helped that Wayne Rooney watched from the bench; not only did they stay organized behind the ball, but overall they were a lot more redeemable.
A lot has already been written about England’s double banks of four players each, defending the goal like Alfred the Great defended Wessex from the 9th-Century Viking onslaught. (I went with Alfred, of course, because the Hastings references were already taken; I think I heard the first one from the television commentators at the 18-minute mark. Also, the English lost at Hastings.)
While for some the reservation and, at times, timidness of the English hinted at trouble to come, I for one don’t have a problem at all with Hodgson’s strategy against a better French side in the first real match of his short career as national team coach, not to mention England’s injury and suspension problems, and pesky distractions like Rio-gate, the inevitable Terry-gate, and the usual masochism of the fans and press. Yes, admittedly I thought for sure they would lose to France after watching them employ this exact same strategy against Belgium, but now I realize that, for the time being, this is the only way they can win against this level of competition. And that’s okay (just ask Italy). There’s nothing wrong with sitting 10 men behind the ball when you’re playing not to lose in the group stage—or indeed in any stage, as long as you’re not playing the Germans. That’s just good tournament soccer; teams aren’t (or shouldn’t be) playing to entertain unseen fans, they’re playing to win, right?
In short, England played smartly, taking a point from the French without exhausting themselves, and in the process laid some groundwork for a style that could take them deep into the tournament. Steven Gerrard played an almost flawless game (and probably should have been awarded a penalty kick in the second half, but c’est la vie), and as we’ve seen time and again, not just with the English side but with Liverpool as well, as Gerrard goes, so too goes the rest of the squad.
Given the cards Hodgson has been dealt, could we really have asked for a better performance from the English? I know I was pleasantly surprised, and I wasn’t drinking because I watched on lunch break, so it couldn’t have been the IPA talking. Football365’s Sarah Winterburn said it best: “If you expected this England team – five weeks into the new manager’s reign – to dominate France, you are an idiot. And you probably have an England flag on your car.”
Well I don’t have an English flag on the old bumper (instead I have a “Come and Take It” Gonzalez flag), but I have been watching England for some time, and their draw against France becomes more impressive the more I sit and think about it.