By Kristian Balkin
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The score line itself against France offered little more than most had expected. One goal a piece was a just outcome from all reasonable perspectives but, under the surface at least, some of the pessimism began to peel away. It was, by no means, replaced by some heady belief that England can go close to conquering the greatest test that Europe provides but there was a distinct feeling that Roy Hodgson, perhaps, has a mind that is difficult to rival in the world of football.
This belief stemmed from the fact that, in halting the flow of some fine French play, England also managed to produce a brand of the beautiful game that was pleasing on the eye and still somewhat pragmatic. Hodgson instilled his customary defensive solidarity, echoed brilliantly in the elegant performance of the whole back four, but he persisted, even when the midfield began to tire and lose their quite palpable grip on the game, in playing two strikers and, at the very minimum, it was a statement of intent.
While it may have brought no extra goals and, in truth, no extra flamboyance to this tie, it proved that the picture painted of Hodgson as a wily figure, keen solely on the preservation of his own goal, was one laden with some misplaced brushstrokes. It is of course true that all of his most recent sides – West Bromwich Albion, Liverpool and Fulham – have been tactically rigid at the very best of times but never has the 64 year-old encouraged anything that resembles a dreary system.
It is quite the contrary, really, and this fact is perfectly exemplified by the inclusion of the young Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain - a decision fraught with risk. Not so because the winger lacked the ability to play at this level but simply because his wilful eagerness to explore the deeper areas of France’s defensive territory was bound to leave Ashley Cole exposed. It did, at times, but Cole displayed a convincing competence that has become a distinctive element of his game. Glen Johnson, on the other flank, put credence to the argument that he may well be a more developed full back than the highly commended Micah Richards. At times, the Liverpool man proved to be the last line of a usually astutely formed defence.
Hodgson’s gamble most definitely paid off, too, with the Oxlade-Chamberlain showing himself to be well more than the dynamic and effective winger that he is widely considered. He showed a palpable dedication to the cause, something rarely seen on this stage, and his youthful effervescence added an edge to England’s play that, at times, made Laurent Blanc uncomfortable in his technical area. This tournament could well be this teenager’s making, much in the same way that Euro 2004 was for a certain Wayne Rooney.
When Lescott scored on the night here, there was a hushed hope that our manager’s knack for attaining competent 1-0 victories would again come to the fore but, before long, there was the stark realisation that the French actually have a side that is incredibly endowed with talent. Samir Nasri was one of those talents and it was his strike, fooling an uncharacteristically nervy Joe Hart, which restored a deserved parity. From then on it was quite clear that a draw would do both Hodgson and Blanc nicely and yet that didn’t stop either side from arming the weaponry. You could feel that nothing further would affect the standings but the introduction of Defoe, replacing Oxlade-Chamberlain, at least made a stiff suggestion that maybe our manager is not one to stand idly by.
The players, unfortunately, did not reciprocate his adventurousness but nobody in their right mind would blame them. In many ways, in fact, it was the perfect result. There will be no unreasonable expectations and neither did we leave the Donbass Arena as a nation embarrassed. Instead, our native Roy has allowed us a glimpse of England’s vast capability and it wasn’t quite what we’d thought it’d be. It was just a little bit better than that.
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