England’s opening draw against France has showed just how hard it will be to break them down at Euro 2012, but their exhausting, defensive tactics rely on veteran players and have won few admirers.
Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard, charged with taking the sting out of the France attacks, are both in their 30s and endured grueling club campaigns.
Gerrard has had niggling injuries in recent years, while Parker has required a painkilling injection to keep him going, raising questions about whether they will have had enough recovery time before tomorrow’s match against Sweden.
“That’s the big question,” coach Roy Hodgson said. “I don’t think I will be the only coach asking that about his players in this tournament, but obviously those two are both over 30 years of age, they both had to work really, really hard.”
However, Hodgson hopes he can retain the starting lineup from the 1-1 draw with France.
“My gut feeling, if we have ... a sensible training day on Wednesday and sensible recovery day on Thursday, I think we’re going to make it very hard for people to leave them out,” Hodgson said. “I think if we said: ‘We’re going to give you a rest because it’s too much to play two games in four days,’ I think some of them would have us up against the wall.”
England’s strength on Monday was being obstinate, underscored by the fact that no goalkeeper in the tournament is yet to make more saves than Joe Hart, while Gerrard, Parker and Joleon Lescott have made the most blocks in the opening eight games.
“We were unbreakable at times,” Gerrard said. “It is a very good sign and to do well in these tournaments you need to be very good defensively.”
After the initiative England had for the first 20 minutes was lost, a France onslaught curtailed any plans to make marauding runs through the center to feed the forwards.
That meant a quiet, often frustrating night for Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young as they made their first tournament appearances.
With Wayne Rooney suspended for the second game against Sweden, Hodgson could switch the stylish Welbeck for battering-ram forward Andy Carroll, who can bully defenders.
“He’s a different type of player to the others in the squad,” Hodgson said. “He has that aerial ability that is very useful, but also the ability to make the runs behind defenders, and use the strength and power ... [to] turn defenses around, and [he] can do damage on crosses.”
The surprise selection of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the left of midfield against France showed that Hodgson is prepared to take risks rather than sticking with tried and tested formulas, although the teenager’s opportunities to burst down the flanks were limited.
The challenge tomorrow will be finding the space to pass the ball forward.
“Obviously, sometimes, especially in tournament football, you are going to be outplayed and it is just about getting the right result. We got a good result,” Oxlade-Chamberlain said. “I think I did OK, just OK. I think it was a bit frustrating for me getting space to do what I like to do and run at people. I like to find space out wide, but the way we play, we like to play compactly, and I think we had to against a good French team who almost overran us in midfield.”
However, while Sweden coach Erik Hamren was berating his “cowards” for falling to a 2-1 loss to co-hosts Ukraine on Monday, Hodgson was praising his team’s grit and determination.