England evolution begins in the middle

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Samir Nasri looked up and saw a perfect opportunity on Monday evening in Donetsk. England, battling away in their opening fixture of Euro 2012 against France had taken the lead nine minutes earlier but soon that would be cancelled out.

England had men behind the ball, nine of them in fact including Joe Hart, but the weight of numbers was useless when the man with the ball at his feet is gifted so much time.

Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard, the men charged with making the midfield area competitive and conceding as little ground as possible were on the toes of a back four deep in their own area.

Parker’s initial reaction to Franck Ribery picking up the ball just infield away from his wide berth was to drop deeper towards England’s defensive unit, and by the time the Bayern Munich winger laid it off to Nasri who was ready to pounce, both he and Gerrard were fighting a losing battle to close the ball down before the Manchester City man levelled the scores.

Nasri himself revealed he took advantage of England’s deep-lying midfield by taking the shot on from distance, while he also used insider knowledge to aim for Hart’s near post when his Manchester City team-mate would have been expecting him to aim across goal.

A moment of inspiration, sure, but also an indictment upon the problems that blighted an England performance that was otherwise the most anyone could have wished for from the Three Lions, which isn’t saying much, admittedly.

Against a technically superior France side, England were forced to retreat from the front line and accept that they wouldn’t see much of the ball; perhaps not as much as most predicted but it was certainly still edifying to see England waiving the white flag in that respect. Any notion of the Golden Generation in recent years was well and truly gone in that moment.

The remainder of the game saw England, and Parker in particular, dashing around the pitch in an attempt to put out the fires lit by France’s fluid front three of Nasri, Karim Benzema and Franck Ribery. The Spurs warrior was withdrawn, looking exhausted, after 77 minutes having heaved himself in the way of numerous French attacks, while he also blocked Florent Malouda’s goal-bound shot excellently during his time on the pitch.

By hook or by crook, England got the result they needed. The Netherlands recorded 29 shots on goal but failed to find the back of the net in their defeat against Denmark on Saturday while England had five efforts (the lowest of the tournament thus far) and got a point. Such is football.

But for their next game of the tournament, the emphasis is switched and they find themselves needing to go on the attack to secure the win they need to all but book their place in the knockout stages of the competition.

The onus is on England (which wasn't the case against France) to go forward and attack a vulnerable Sweden side who go into the game on the back of a demoralising defeat against Ukraine on Monday, and who appear ready to fall apart at the seams if reports of unrest in the camp are anything to go by. 

England’s midfield must come to the fore in Kiev against their inferior opponents. Against France they were forced into retreat and into operating on the toes of their defensive colleagues, leaving forwards Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young up the pitch on their own and isolated.

At times, when Young dropped deeper to help out in the middle of the pitch, Welbeck was left on his own entirely, and when England regained possession following the breakdown of a French attack, there was little they could do except hit and hope. Often, that hope was unfounded.

Against Sweden they can take at least a bold twenty yard step up the pitch and set up camp, reconnecting with their attacking colleagues in the process. Zlatan Ibrahimovic will drop deep to come collect the ball and in all likelihood Parker will have to track the enigmatic forward when he does so, meaning Gerrard can sweep up after his colleague does the dirty work and spring attacks.

Hodgson likes his players to work in tandem together, be it the two strikers or both sets of wing-backs and in particular his central midfielders. If Parker does drop a little deeper Gerrard will be implored to push on, but the Liverpool man must pick his positions astutely with the classy Rasmus Elm lurking in the middle of the park.

The concern for Hodgson comes with fatigue, an issue he raised today. Such was their workload against France in the Donetsk heat that both Gerrard and Parker have question marks over their heads as to whether they can last the distance, especially after both missed spells of the Premier League campaign through injury.

A glance at the substitute bench reveals England have little to turn to should either man be running on empty, with Jordan Henderson entering the fray on Monday in place of Parker.

Gerrard voiced his opinion that England must be much more bold against Sweden and they will certainly have the freedom to do so against opponents less likely to hurt them with their own ability, something England were overtly aware of on Monday.

Hodgson made great play of the fact England played two frendlies before Euro 2012 against opponents who bore similarities to the teams they face in Ukraine. Belgium, replicating France allowed England to show they could be defensively solid when not in possession.

Against Sweden’s mirror image, Norway, Hodgson’s men had much less success in showing they could take the game to a team, instead reverting to type after an early goal.

In the evolution of this current England side, it would be a big leap forward to show that flashes of pace and movement shown against France can be maintained for 90 minutes, and that is something which must start with their weary pair of central midfielders.

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