England playing France in the opening game of Group D had the feeling of a redemptive catharsis after the ignominies of the 2010 World Cup; the two worst losers from that tournament pitted against one another as new orders took competitive shape. France were inevitably the more creative, thrusting side but England's schooling by their new coach was palpable and, much to Roy Hodgson's credit, they limited and frustrated their opponents.
Boasting a world class triumvirate in Nasri, Ribery and Benzema France created the better opportunities and their goal was wonderfully crafted, yet England left them frustrated for large periods and will take much satisfaction and encouragement from the limited opportunities allowed to three of the finest players in Poland and Ukraine this summer. For England, shorn of the presence of Wayne Rooney, though reminded of his seeming omnipotence by an almost voyeuristic TV editor, the method was one of containment. Steven Gerrard, limited in his holding position alongside Scott Parker, fulfilled his role admirably and whilst his tactical indiscipline has been alluded to by past coaches, and in some instances indulged through his 'free role', last night's performance was a tactically disciplined one as he demonstrated a willing appetite for this shackled approach. His performance mirrored the constant bustling of his colleague for the night Scott Parker, yet there was the nagging sense that their inability to strike the right tempo was similarly aiding the French.
England's containment was effective, though of course not absolute, whilst the discipline and rigidity of the performance was in marked contrast with past failures, specifically those that have appeared as if rendered by 11 individuals playing for no one in particular, suffused by errant passing and driven simply by fear of failure. Nevertheless, the inability of the English midfield to assert their own tempo was belied by the failure to register an extended period, indeed anything beyond a flurry, of sustained pressure, subsequently limiting England to five attempts on goal. Yet for Hodgson, a strategist and deep thinker of the game employed by the FA for the far reaching impact he can have on the English way, a point won from the hardest opponents in the group, indeed a team that has a habit of beating England in both friendlies and tournament football, is a significant one.
The comparison is now an irrelevancy but bares import in exemplifying the continued facile preposterousness of the English football press; to be clear, the same result would not have been achieved with Redknapp in charge. Sending out 'his boys' charged up on some perverse sense of inverted Dunkurkian spirit alone, bereft of tactics and tournament-worthy game plan, the French would have been cast as victors by at least a two goal margin. How refreshing, then, to see English footballers playing with a sense of planned efficiency, allied to the impression that last night was one iteration of a plan previously devised, which will be tweaked to suit the form of the players available as well as the nature of the opposition. Hodgson carries with him a sense of dignified, considered intelligence that may yet deliver on the feeling of understated optimism around the England team.
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