Moments of precision, slick, one-touch passing and a real endeavour showed the potential inherent in the English footballer.
There were passages of play against France that revealed the hard work done and understanding gained on the training pitch. There was coherence and pace. As ever with England, there is always a ‘but’ to consider.
England were better for longer against France than in either of Roy Hodgson’s two warm-up games, but not for long enough to suggest that qualification from Group D is going to be anything other than gruelling.
England started brightly, creating the first genuine opening with a move arguably as good as the tournament has seen.
James Milner took a heap of stick for his poor finish after rounding the keeper, yet how uplifting it was to see a midfield player arrive at pace in the opposition box on the end of a sequence of passes to which France had no answer. In that scintillating cameo England raised the bar, showed what might be possible were Hodgson to imbue the group with the freedom and confidence to play and think on the front foot.
The goal was also a thing of beauty, albeit from a rather more predictable source. Steven Gerrard’s delivery from the set-piece was Beckham-esque and Joleon Lescott’s header a marvellous demonstration of the art.
Here comes another ‘but’…instead of driving on, of developing a platform of sustained attacking play, England retreated into the cautious shell we saw against Norway and Belgium.
Initiative and territory were conceded quickly. Gerrard and Scott Parker sank deeper and deeper, inviting France to fill the space in front of them. Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri dictated the tempo and within nine minutes of falling behind France were celebrating an equaliser born of 65 per cent possession.
By the game’s end France had made almost double the passes of England and fashioned 15 shots on target. England managed one.
At least Hodgson recognised the failing after the break by urging Gerrard and Parker further up the pitch. This has to be the instruction against Sweden, who, after the defeat to Ukraine, will not lack motivation on Friday. With England enjoying possession higher up the pitch France did not look the composed outfit they appeared in the first half.
At the point of England’s attack Danny Welbeck showed a turn of pace and a first touch of sufficient quality to worry any defence. What killed him and ultimately the team in the first half was the 40 yards of empty space behind him, where at least one of Gerrard or Parker should have been.
One option would be to follow the advice of Rafa Benitez, who believes England should adopt a three-man midfield to improve ball retention. Another might be to follow the French example, which saw Ribery, Nasri and Florent Malouda interchange roles. There was always a player wide on the left and on the right, but not always the same man.
This made the French harder to pick up and impossible to predict. England, for all their episodic promise, continue to move in straight lines, with Milner clamped to the right and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain largely to the left.
The issue of movement in the opposition half is one of the key elements Hodgson must address. It is central to the lack of ball retention that blights the national team.
Don’t expect a radical shift against Sweden, or even Ukraine next week. But if England are to contend rather than survive change must come. England were better in patches against France. The challenge is to be better full stop.
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