There is something slightly mystifying about the reaction to England’s draw in Ukraine on Tuesday. It is 60 years this November since Hungary came to Wembley and thrashed England 6-3, ending once and for all any realistic assumption of English superiority, and yet still it pertains, still a strange sense that “we should be beating this lot” underlies almost any English interaction with a team that is not one of the obvious grandees of the game. Even when Fabio Capello’s England beat Spain 1-0 at Wembley, through defensive solidity and a little fortune, there were grumbles that they had not beaten them playing brilliant free-flowing attacking football.
A large section of the English media and public seems to expect the moon on a stick. Roy Hodgson has not provided that, but on Tuesday he at least showed he has a stick, and that is a necessary first stage to appending the moon to the end.
Let’s recap on the situation before the match. England had lost arguably their three best forwards to injury and suspension – Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck. They had conceded soft goals in away games against Poland and Montenegro and had looked defensively suspect in beating Scotland 3-2 in August. Ukraine were on the rise, having won four games in a row, scoring 18 goals in the process (nine of them against teams who weren’t San Marino). In front of a crowd of over 60,000 fans who had begun to believe in Mykhaylo Fomenko’s Ukraine, a draw seemed a perfectly respectable goal.
Hodgson’s side achieved that and, as he pointed out, they did so without “riding their luck”. Ukraine probably should have had a penalty in the first minute and they also had a free-kick deflected just wide in the second half, but a team that had been rampant in their other qualifiers this year were rendered toothless. In total they had just 7 shots – 1 fewer than England - only 1 of which was on target.
The problem with solid defensive work is that it’s often a negative: it’s very difficult to observe something that is prevented from happening, particularly on first viewing. Watch the game again, though, and it becomes apparent how much credit Hodgson should take for stifling Ukraine. Rickie Lambert, for instance, was clearly instructed to close down Oleksandr Kucher rather than Yevhen Khacheridi. Khacheridi is a slightly cumbersome player and repeatedly lost the ball with aimless long diagonals – achieving only a 78% success rate.
England have, in the past, tended to defend too deep, as though the only way to frustrate an opponent is to sit back and recreate Rourke’s Drift. Here, though, as in the Spain game, they were pro-active in their defending, Frank Lampard and Jack Wilshere pressing high up the pitch, denying Edmar and Oleh Gusev any time to create the play. That their pass success rates were 64% and 67% respectively is a measure of England’s success. Only in wide areas did England really look vulnerable at any time – it’s significant that Ashley Cole and Kyle Walker were each called into 4 tackles, with Steven Gerrard doing a huge amount of work to provide cover when Artem Fedetskiy, who had a fine night, overlapped from right-back.
Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka, playing together in central defence for the fifth successive game and beginning to develop an understanding, were excellent, completing 11 clearances between them and winning seven aerial duels. Cahill was the aggressive, up and at them ball winner (7 clearances, 5 aerial duels and 2 of the 3 shots blocked), Jagielka the mopper-up and distributor (his passing accuracy was 81% to Cahill’s 67%).
So from a defensive point of view, England were extremely good, admittedly against opponents who turned out to be nowhere near as good as recent performances had suggested they might be. Where they were poor was in their use of the ball. The passing stats make for ugly reading - Walker completed just 65% of his passes, Rickie Lambert 63% - with Joe Hart’s distribution (62% accuracy) a particular worry. Theo Walcott, whose pace might have exposed Ukraine on the break, was ineffective, completing just 72% of his passes and failing to complete a single key pass. Whether that was his fault or down to a lack of movement is harder to say, but what should have been a strength for England became a means of returning the ball to Ukraine.
But while that was disappointing, the priority in Kyiv was always going to be containment. And that, England achieved with some success. The long-term issue of ball retention remains, but the general scratchiness of the game was evidence of how effective England were in stopping Ukraine from playing.
How did you rate England's performance? Tell us in the comments below