And so there were eight… With the quarter finals looming over the next four days, it’s time to take stock on what has been a wonderful tournament so far. We’ve had surprises, Russia crashing out against Greece, Holland failing to register a single point, France slipping up against Sweden and Gary Neville keeping a low profile. We’ve feasted our eyes on sublime individual performances from the likes of Özil, Ronaldo, Pirlo and Modric and gasped at glorious goals from Van der Vaart, Welbeck, Balotelli and Ibrahimovic (goal of the tournament so far).
Predictably, we’ve also witnessed UEFA mis-management, Platini’s mob fining Bendtner £80,000 for being a bit silly while fining Croatia’s FA £64,561- £15,000 less- for their fan’s racial abuse of Balotelli. High profile footballers have weighed in: Man City’s Kompany tweeted “Surely if you were a sponsor, you would consider racism as a more dangerous association than the damage caused by commercial opportunism?” and Rio Ferdinand posted “Platini is a joak. Cant beleev they only had 2 pay 25 grand less than Bender.” (This latter post is fictitious, my invisible lawyer tells me to say).
Rooney prods us into top spot : England vs Ukraine match analysis
The huge HD screens at the sports bar where I chose to watch the game not only revealed the full grisliness of Roy ‘I’d happily kill a man’ Keane’s stubble but also beamed the cauldron-like atmosphere at the Donbass Arena with great clarity. This promised to be a big night; backed by 50,000 plus fans, Ukraine were not going to give up the fight easily.
The game started with England chasing shadows, Ukraine zipping the ball around with composure and style. Hodgson’s men held their shape as expected but saw very little of the ball, again failing to maintain even basic ball retention. After 10 minutes though, England displayed their first promising interplay, resulting in Cole receiving the ball in an advanced area on the left, only to centre tamely to Ukraine’s fourth choice keeper Pyatov. Despite this, Ukraine continued to dictate the game and forced strong blocks from Parker and Terry from goal-bound efforts from outside the box.
Part of the problem England encountered in the early stages was a lack of players actively seeking the ball. Too often Hart would distribute a goal kick to a defender with the good intention of building from the back, only for Lescott or Cole to be pressed quickly by the energetic Ukrainian forwards without a midfielder in sight available for a short pass, resulting in a target-less downfield hoof. I remain unsure as to whether this is a by-product of Hodgson’s tactics or a lack of ball-playing confidence from the players themselves. The same applies to the back four’s tendency to retreat inside their penalty area when facing oncoming attacks: is this Hodgson’s plan, based on a recognition of Terry and Lescott’s lack of pace, or just the players’ unwillingness to commit themselves? ‘The problem is’, said my friend, ‘they’re fundamentally better at football than us’. I agreed in principle, but there does seem something unwaveringly dogged about this England set up that makes winning ugly a constant possibility even against clearly more fluid footballing teams.
Young, who has been a peripheral figure in the tournament so far, began to show promise when receiving the ball on the left in an advanced position, where he is capable of causing serious damage. After a great crossfield pass from Terry, Young whipped in a perfect cross for Rooney who unfortunately caught only a hint of the ball, heading it well wide. On the half hour mark, Yarmolenko’s curled effort required a neat save from Hart but this provided the first half’s last meaningful action.
Recalling the half-time interval against Brazil at World Cup 2002, Gareth Southgate said of Sven-Göran Erikkson, ‘when we needed Winston Churhcill, we got Iain Duncan-Smith’. Although Hodgson may have given a rousing speech, I like to think that Gary Neville set up a projector screen in the changing room and, utilising his mastery of the Sky Sports touchscreen animations and slow-motion toggle bar, isolated Ukraine’s main defensive weakness to inspire England’s goal just after half time. Gerrard showed great improvised skill when flicking the ball away from Gusev to angle in a low bouncing cross, which caught a deflection off both Khacheridi and Pyatov, and the ball floated kindly towards Rooney a yard out at the back post, who headed his first tournament goal for England since 2004.
England continued to look brittle at the back and Milevskiy really should have scored from a header six yards out on the hour mark, but to England fans’ delight he flashed it over the bar. A minute later things really heated up. A long ball was well controlled by Milevskiy who released Devic in the England penalty area. Devic turned beyond Terry, who was attempting to recover after wrongly anticipating a shorter original pass. Devic placed his shot towards Hart’s left, who made a partial save and the ball now looped goalwards. To his immense credit, Terry tracked the flight of the ball and acrobatically hooked it away on the, ahem, goal line. History is written by the winners, right?.. In truth the ball clearly crossed the line, but it transpires that Milevskiy was offside from the original long ball anyway, so England would actually have been unlucky were the goal given.
I had spent basically the entire first half shouting unrepeatable ‘feedback’ at Milner, but was delighted to see him do something useful after 70 minutes, when he turned Kharcheridi and delivered a good cross. The increasingly obviously fourth choice Pyatov fumbled the cross and it fell to Cole who half volleyed the ball towards the goal, which Pyatov managed to palm away for a corner. No further clear goalscoring opportunities emerged, with even the Ukrainian deity Shevchenko failing to make any significant impact on the game. It wouldn’t be fair to say Ukraine went out with a whimper, or that England remained totally solid, but certainly the last 20 minutes were remarkably easy on the nerves as an England fan, also helped by the news of Sweden’s lead against France.
Well, well, well. We won the group, without ever really getting out of reverse gear. Thanks in part to a surprising French defeat, we have managed to avoid Spain in the quarter-finals. Italy have showed a dynamism in this tournament much departed from their traditional defensive approach, and boast a strong midfield and attack. The likely absence of Cheillini is a huge blow for the Italians though, as- despite his mistake against Croatia- they will be more vulnerable to England’s attacking strength: crosses. If England manage to improve their play in possession, Parker and Gerrard are both still alive after three exhausting performances, and Rooney, Welbeck and Young combine like they do at United, then we stand a very good chance of comfortably reaching the semis. If not, prepare for 90 minutes of torture… (that’s not a threat, just to be clear.)
(To clarify, I consider 5/10 an average performance, rather than 7/10 which seems to be the default score for many newspapers and websites).
Joe Hart- 7: Like a trusty Swiss Army knife, you always feel confident he’ll get you out of trouble. Made a good save from a horribly wobbling Konoplienka effort and generally did all goalkeeping admin work with no fuss.
Glen Johnson- 6: Gave the ball away too often and didn’t do enough to prevent crosses flying in. However, used his pace well to make recovering challenges and there are signs that his positional play is improving.
John Terry- 8: His best game for England in a while. His positioning was generally sound, he was strong in the tackle as ever and he distributed well. His occasional over-eagerness to commit himself on the half way line continues to cause concern, as he’s basically slower than any other international football player.
Ashley Cole- 7: Used his experience to track runs effectively and didn’t let much past him. Like in the Sweden game, he did again look more hesitant than usual, sometimes looking caught in the grip of indecision. This tendency reached its apex when he gained the award for most needless booking of the tournament, failing to take a throw-in after dithering for what seemed like nearly a minute.
James Milner- 4: Opta stats reveal he covered the most ground out of anyone in the first half. This is by far the most positive thing I can say about his performance, so I’ll leave it at that, as he seems like a nice fella. Like with Heskey, I don’t blame him personally for wanting to represent his country.
Scott Parker- 6: Another outstanding outfield goalkeeping display, getting in the way of everything he possibly could and diving at people’s feet, on one occasion with his head. He performs a useful function for England given the way they play. Will he still be alive by the end of the tournament?
Steven Gerrard- 8: Man of the Match: Was the driving force of the team, able to beat players with neat footwork and determination as well as looking the most composed on the ball. His passing was more accurate than I have seen for a long time, which bodes well for the Italy game. He is proving a very worthy captain. Here’s an interesting thought though: will his captaincy continue beyond the Euros given he’ll be 34 by the World Cup?
Ashley Young- 5: Showed glimpses of promise but just doesn’t seem to want the ball, and when defending his positioning was woeful. Many of us may forget this is his first major tournament; he does show signs of pressure-induced performance anxiety that paralysed the entire squad in 2010.
Wayne Rooney- 6: Started off noticeably ring rusty but grew into the game and exerted more influence, before tiring and being substituted. A good pre-quarter final training match for him, topped off with possibly the easiest goal of his career. If given some basic heading lessons and placed carefully into position, Harry Redknapp’s mother may indeed have been able to score from there.
Danny Welbeck- 6: Barely put a foot wrong and looked inventive in possession, but owing to England’s style of play, this was all too rare a sight.
Theo Walcott (Substitute)- 5: In stark contrast to the Sweden game, he was barely noticeable.