Over the past couple of seasons, I doubt that there has been a harsher critic of the England football team than myself. I have gone from a flag-waving, forget the scoreline, fanatical supporter to one who has grown tired of the mediocrity and feeble apologies and explanations from players and coaches. So for the first time in nearly two years, yesterday I was heartened by England’s deserved 1-0 win over a highly skilful and capable Belgium side, and with the Euro2012 opening game only a week away, I finally have something positive to say about an England team for once.
Football purists will be scratching their heads at this as what we saw out on the Wembley pitch today was not pretty by any means. Belgium had most of the possession and were far superior in the way they moved the ball and their movement off the ball. In comparison, England were labored, especially in the first half, and their passing was mediocre at best, which frankly, wasn’t much different than what we had seen in the past, but I did see two things today that I had not seen before. Firstly, the effort put forth by the players on the defensive side of the ball was tremendous. Their work-rate was tireless and there is a real passion there to prevent penetration through the two lines of defense. The second thing I saw, more importantly, was the consistency with which they maintained their shape and style when players were subbed in and out. No matter who came in or who was taken off, the performance was exactly the same. No different. That particular aspect can be entirely credited to the efforts of new manager Roy Hodgson, who has developed a reputation at club level of shaping teams that are decidedly hard to score against, and last night was no exception.
Despite their dominant possession, Belgium proved to be woeful in front of goal, and England goalkeeper Joe Hart only had one nervous moment when a long range shot from Guillame Gillet hit the upright. Other than that, England’s two lines of four stayed firm. At the other end of the field, we had some top class performances from both Danny Welbeck, who clinically took England’s only real chance of the match to score his first goal for his country, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who showed glimpses of his Arsenal form. Jermaine Defoe also gave Hodgson some selection problems for the opener against France with a fine cameo of 15-20 minutes. My man of the match today though was Scott Parker. England are so much better with him in the holding midfielder position than Gareth Barry. He works so hard off the ball and his effort has to be an inspiration to the younger players in the squad.
I have said all along that Barry, Lampard, Terry, Milner and Glen Johnson were surplus to requirements and we definitely wont miss Barry or Lampard as today showed. This squad needs to be the core of our future now and when players such as Wilshere, Smalling and Walker return from injury, maybe we have finally reached a point where we can have hope that England can and will compete at the highest level on the international stage.
Now before you all think I’ve relapsed into my past life as a flag waving lunatic fan, I realize that we have much tougher games ahead and a much sterner test than Belgium in the first game against the French, but our opponents today were no slouches. They were a very skilful side, and even without Vincent Kompany, are one of the most physical sides I’ve seen England play for quite some time. I’m also aware that we have some more injury worries ahead with both John Terry, whose absence I would welcome in a heartbeat, and Gary Cahill waiting for tests to determine their fitness, but it appears that this squad has pulled together miraculously and has a definite desire and team chemistry that is tangible. I would even go as far as to say that if this team bombs out of the tournament after three games, I’ll be able to deal with that much better than on previous occasions because it appears that we have a group of players that genuinely want to work hard to achieve, unlike with past teams. The big question for me will be how this team reacts when they concede an early goal. Will they have the creativity to claw their way back into the game against the likes of France, Spain and Germany? That remains to be seen.
We have a long way to go, and I still think we have a lot of work to do to get out of our Group, but I’m far more hopeful today than I was a couple of weeks ago.
Nice one, Roy. Keep up the good work.