Since England’s Quarter-Final exit at the hands of Italy via penalties, there has been plenty of criticism directed at their style of play, and more specifically, their inability to keep the ball. On the face of it the possession stats look very poor as England failed to obtain more than 50% possession in any of their four games throughout the tournament. They averaged just 39% of possession, but having only 43% of the ball against The Ukraine is perhaps the most alarming statistic.
This is probably a combination of factors and not simply that England’s players are not good on the ball. I think the main reason was the formation, as 442 is now outdated in international football, most sides play either three men in central midfield or two sitting behind a playmaker, which left England outnumbered in the middle of the park and subsequently Gerrard and Parker were forced to chase the game for large periods. This also partly explains why Gerrard and Parker both seemed to be completely exhausted after the hour mark in every game, which massively contributed to very poor finishes to the France and Italy games.
This is not though a criticism of Hodgson as he was thrown in at the deep end, with very little time to prepare for the tournament and with several key injuries to central midfielders. Meaning that he could only take three out and out central midfielders, one of whom being Jordan Henderson, who was coming off the back of a difficult season at Anfield, after failing to live up to expectations. So I can understand Hodgson electing to go with just Gerrard and Parker in there.
Perhaps if Ashley Young could have exerted more influence on the play when he was deployed as a second striker in the first two games then the system may have been more effective, but he is not a natural no10. Perhaps Hodgson could have brought Milner into the midfield alongside Gerrard and Parker, as it would have reduced Gerrard’s defensive responsibilities and consequently allowed him more freedom to get forward.
Of course this still presents plenty of issues, as Walcott would not have offered the same, if any protection for the defensively vulnerable Glen Johnson and it may have left Welbeck and then Rooney, who would have come in for him, isolated. However, we would have: retained possession better, had more legs in the midfield, had more pace in the side, carried more of a threat on the wings and in the final game Pirlo wouldn’t have had as much space to run the game.
Hodgson was spot on though in making his first priority to ensure England were difficult to beat, and he certainly achieved that, defensively they were excellent and everyone worked exceptionally hard. This led to plenty of comparisons with Chelsea’s Champions League victory, or people suggesting that England were ‘doing a Chelsea’, as if they invented defensive football. However, there were several key features from the Chelsea side missing, the three main ones being: the presence of Drogba up front; none of the England strikers can hold the ball up as well, intimidate a defence as much and I don’t think even Rooney has the ability to score goal out of nothing as consistently as Drogba.
Secondly, although he missed the final, Ramires’ pace and agility was absolutely crucial against Barcelona, as he did his defensive work brilliantly whilst utilising his fitness and pace effectively to act as an outlet of pressure on many occasions, and even as a weapon for counter-attacking, which was particularly evident for his goal at the Nou Camp. This was perhaps Milners’ role within the England side, but he was unable to make the same impact. And lastly a three man midfield.
All in all though, it was a satisfactory tournament for England, not many people expected England to win the group, which they did, before taking a good Italy side all the way to penalties. Quite simply, England are not in the top four teams in Europe, so the Quarter- Finals represents a fair result.
People may criticise the style of play, but it was the only way for Hodgson. A manager has to build from the back and then develop the rest of the side, in the coming years there will be more pressure on England to dominate games, and with the return of Wilshere and emergence of Cleverly and potentially McEachran there are good ball playing midfielders out there. Hodgson’s England will not concede too many goals, they just need to start scoring more.