For a while, it seemed as if Kiev wouldn’t be the venue for England’s first tournament win over Sweden. Scraping a victory over Erik Hamren’s side is England’s level at present, and a firm indication that change – tactical, strategic and systemic – will be required in order to genuinely brighten the future for the national team. But for now, things are looking up. Roy Hodgson has earned four points from a possible six so far at UEFA Euro 2012 and a draw against Ukraine on Tuesday will take England through to the quarter-finals.
Andy Carroll opened the scoring with a flawless header from Steven Gerrard’s perfect cross and England responded well for a while. But after Glen Johnson turned in Olof Mellberg’s shot in the early minutes of the second half and the former Aston Villa defender headed in a goal of his own, England were in trouble and didn’t look remote like they were able to claw their way out of it.
It took a stroke of luck to turn the game back in England’s favour. Theo Walcott’s shot was relatively straight and central, but Andreas Isaksson was flummoxed and the ball hit the net without the aid of a deflection. Walcott created the winner, too. His incisive burst through the penalty box and clever cut-back allowed Danny Welbeck to backheel the ball past Isaksson and complete a win that had seemed impossible just minutes previously.
There has been a lively debate about whether Welbeck meant his improvised finish for the winning goal. Some argue he meant it, shouting from the rooftops about the deftness of touch and ingenuity that allowed it. Others have suggested it was merely ineffective control, with Welbeck unable to snare Walcott’s pass but enjoying a fortuitous outcome. I’m somewhere in the middle: for my money, the intent was there but the execution was sketchy. Not that it matters, of course.
Let’s begin with the positives. For one, England took the lead with a spark of quality that was absent in the workmanlike and efficient performance against France. Gerrard’s cross came out of the blue, demonstrating the vision and technique that we all know he possesses. From a deep position on the right he spotted and found Carroll in space in front of goal, and the Liverpool striker thumped his header past Isaksson so emphatically that for a moment it was easy to forget the difficulties he’s experienced since joining the Reds. It was Carroll at his very best.
Walcott’s impact was crucial and decisive. Having come on as a substitute in the second half, the Arsenal forward scored one goal and made one for Welbeck. With Wayne Rooney back in contention for Tuesday’s match against Ukraine, England’s attacking options suddenly give Hodgson a series of tricky decisions to make.
That Carroll and Welbeck both found the net makes those calls even more difficult. Carroll, Welbeck and Walcott all now have a compelling case for inclusion in Donetsk, while Rooney will almost certainly feature and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is also waiting in the wings.
Ashley Young, on the other hand, has been on the end of some well deserved criticism. His return to the left wing was largely ineffective and his decision making poor, but for me he wasn’t the only guilty party. Scott Parker was equally disappointing, giving the ball away unnecessarily on too many occasions and generally not living up to even the modest standards set by those around him.
But the most alarming problem in what I thought was a bad England performance overall was the defending. Mellberg being played onside for the first Sweden goal was an oversight, a momentary lapse that only the very best teams avoid impeccably. But he was also unmarked, and this was unfortunately a portent of the second goal. The free kick that was played in from deep was delivered well but hardly impossible to defend. Mellberg’s free header should be cause for severe concern for Hodgson and his staff.
The media reaction has been somewhat mixed this morning, and The Telegraph‘s Henry Winter certainly has every faith that Welbeck’s finish was entirely intentional:
“Few English players possess the imagination, athleticism, touch and boldness to meet the ball with a near pirouette in the air and flicked finish. Welbeck has been brought up the right way, encouraged to express himself at Manchester United’s academy and taught such skills at Carrington by Rene Meulensteen, now an important member of Sir Alex Ferguson’s coaching staff. Few who oversaw Welbeck’s development will have been surprised by his goal.”
There’s also praise for Hodgson, whose influence on the outcome was clear:
“This is what the FA hoped when he was appointed. This was another reminder of his experience, his calmness in adversity. With England trailing 2-1, Hodgson removed the low-key James Milner for Walcott just after the hour. Walcott acted like an adrenalin shot, reinvigorating England, restoring belief, scoring himself, his first since destroying Croatia in Zagreb, and then playing the provider for Welbeck. These lion cubs have claws.”
Michael Cox focuses on the selection of Carroll in his column for The Guardian, arguing that the former Newcastle United striker had to perform in order for England to function:
“Hodgson was essentially gambling on Carroll playing well, because his dominance of the side meant other parts suffered. Welbeck, for example, did not seem entirely sure of his role. He was disciplined defensively, dropping into midfield without the ball, but this meant he drifted into positions where he wasn’t able to use his pace to work the channels, as he had done superbly against France. Young, meanwhile, tried to move inside into central positions but created relatively little.
“But Carroll was superb – his physicality was the game’s key feature. He conceded two free-kicks within the opening two minutes, but even then the Swedish centre-backs looked uncomfortable against him. England might not have crossed the ball frequently enough, but constant long balls and Carroll’s knock-downs simply pushed England up the pitch.”
All in all, it’s difficult to complain about a win, and it’s only right to be positive about a situation in which England require but a point to advance in the competition – if they do so, the tournament has to be considered a modest success. But there were significant problems for England last night and they’re not going to be easily fixed.