“Disappointment for England.” I can’t remember who led with this sentiment in their post-match coverage of the FIFA World Cup 2014 qualifying match against Ukraine, but I didn’t really agree with it. The 1-1 draw was a strange match, in which England conceded in a good first half but scored in a poor one, and could have won but nearly lost. By no means was this a great England performance, but to take away a profound sense of disappointment seems to me to be an over-reaction.
England got out of jail at the end of a testing match at Wembley. A goal down with fewer than five minutes left on the clock, England needed a penalty to level the game. Substitute Danny Welbeck was its engineer, keeping his composure to lift the ball over the leg of Yevhen Khacheridi before it struck the Dynamo Kiev defender on the arm. It was the second penalty decision Cuneyt Cakir had made in quick succession, Welbeck’s dive correctly detected on the previous occasion.
Frank Lampard scored from the spot with three minutes gone in Chisinau last Friday but his penalty three minutes from the end of Tuesday’s qualifying match was taken under far more stressful circumstances. He equalised with a crisp spot kick and turned a bad night into one that ended with a definite feeling of relief for England fans.
So tight is World Cup qualification in the UEFA region – only one team from each group is guaranteed to automatically progress – that some games really stand out as vital right from the off. In a group containing Ukraine, Poland and Montenegro we can assume that England won’t have much room for manoeuvre between now and this time next year, and so the three home matches against those sides are likely to be crucial. Losing the first could have been disastrous for England’s chances.
England should have been in the lead before Ukraine broke the deadlock. Jermain Defoe’s strike from 20 yards was a quite brilliant finish, giving Andriy Pyatov no hope as it ripped past him and into the bottom corner after a strong and direct run by the Tottenham Hotspur striker. But the whistle had been blown – Defoe was adjudged to have impeded Andriy Yarmolenko, who made a routine hand to top of the chest look like something more sinister. Cakir bought it hook, line and sinker.
If Defoe’s strike was of the highest quality, Yevhen Konoplyanka’s opener for Ukraine was out of this world. Joleon Lescott’s pathetic clearance returned possession to the visitors on their right wing, and they quickly swept the ball along their midfield to the left and to Konoplyanka. He cut inside and unleashed a tremendous strike from 25 yards that looked in as soon as it left his boot. Sure enough, Joe Hart couldn’t get near it and could only watch it swing past him and into the top corner.
The final headline moment of the match was the dismissal of England captain Steven Gerrard. Ruslan Rotan had been on the receiving end of a stray elbow ten minutes after the break, the first of Gerrard’s two yellow card offences.The second was just as needless and came in the dying minutes. He lunged in on Denys Garmash from behind with no prospect of dispossessing him. His frustration was clear, but his ejection was justified.
Gerrard’s suspension will do England no harm against poor opposition, but there were other problems on Tuesday. Lescott’s attempted clearance in the build-up to Ukraine’s goal was far from England’s only defensive lapse in a first half that was riddled with them. General defensive shakiness is something that can result from having a couple of second stringers in the back four, but Lescott and Phil Jagielka in particular did themselves no favours with John Terry to return and Gary Cahill waiting on the bench.
England’s profligacy in front of goal was highlighted by ITV’s commentary team during the game, was clear to anyone watching, and has been analysed in the aftermath. Tom Cleverley was the main culprit,but I am not overly concerned by this perceived problem. Sometimes, teams have games where it just won’t go in. Cleverley found good positions, kept going and eventually hit the post with his most difficult chance of all. He will score for England before long.
Despite the errors and the scoreline, the first half was positive overall. England showed an unexpected willingness to try something different, and a new shape and plenty of discipline resulted in a good 45 minutes. The players were conscious of the importance of possession and the value in going backwards to go forwards. If they have a desire to improve and recognise some of their longstanding problems, England are heading in the right direction.
To top off the better side of the first half performance, Gerrard, so often lambasted for his tendency to play the Hollywood ball, was landing them more often than not. In truth, Konoplyanka’s goal was the turning point and the primary disappointment on Tuesday was not the result but the loss of direction for so much of a shapeless second half that badly needed the injection of life that followed the introductions of Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge.
Dominic Fifield at The Guardian writes that Roy Hodgson’s honeymoon is over. I don’t think England managers really get a honeymoon and I don’t fully agree with Fifield’s bleak summary:
“This occasion offered up many of the more sobering aspects of life in charge of the national team: a red card for the captain, Steven Gerrard, briefly announced as the sponsors’ man of the match; a Jermain Defoe goal harshly disallowed; a flurry of other cautions; classy opponents cutting swathes on the counter against a jittery defence. Salvaging a draw felt like an achievement.”
There’s nothing untrue in Fifield’s assessment, but in my opinion the overall reaction has been too negative. What do people really expect of England? Are we still completely unrealistic? Where Fifield is entirely correct is in his assertion that salvaging the draw felt like an achievement. It did, and it was. That is where England are, and it’s a problem that goes far beyond the manager’s office.
The Daily Telegraph website features a list of thought-starters for Hodgson from none other than Alan Smith, a pundit for whom I don’t have a great deal of time. He’s concerned about England’s defending too:
“In Poland and Ukraine, England were known for defending deep, for getting men behind the ball and stubbornly denying the opposition space in behind. In Hodgson’s first games in charge, this tactic gave England a base from which to build. This habit, however, continued at Wembley, only this time the tactic backfired somewhat when Ukraine were given too much room to deliver menacing balls into the box.”
But it is Fifield’s Guardian cohort Daniel Taylor who hits the nail on the head:
“What happened against Ukraine, ranked 39th, probably served as a reminder that England, in their current guise, are not refined enough for qualification to be regarded as a formality.”
Qualifying, clearly, is not a formality. Anyone who thought it would be has been given a much needed reality check.