Going into Euro 2012, the strongest part of England's team was widely thought to be its defense, a prediction that seems correct after the first match of Group D. While England looked sluggish in attack, with Ashley Young, the key player, barely featuring, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain too eager to impress, the defensive side of England's game was strong and resolute, and was able to limit France to very few chances, making the final result a very fair one considering the chances each side created. France dominated possession and outshot England by about a margin of four to one, but England rarely looked threatened aside from a 10-minute period just before half time.
As the diagram below shows, England's strategy for stopping France, a team it lost to in four of its last five meetings, including the most recent fixture in November 2010, was to play two deep and narrow banks of four and force France to go out wide if it wanted to find space or create chances by playing the perfect through-ball. It's a system that Roy Hodgson has perfected over his many years of management, but particularly in his run to the Europa League final with un-fancied Fulham, and his tenure at West Bromwich Albion, two teams that arguably over-achieved during Hodgson's reign.
The main concern for England coming into the tournament was that the players wouldn't totally respond to Hodgson's drills and tactics, something that was one of the major problems during his time at Liverpool. Based on the defensive performance, though, England has responded to Hodgson's coaching, which is something that should leave the team in fairly good defensive standing for the rest of the tournament. England was happy to cede possession in the middle of the park and in the wide areas, effectively trying to block off the penalty area.
James Milner helped Glen Johnson against Franck Ribery, Florent Malouda, who joined in on the flanks from center midfield and Patrice Evra. All three had fairly quiet games, with Ribery perhaps most disappointing; he rarely got past Johnson and Milner to deliver cutbacks or get into a dangerous position to shoot and ended up playing more passes backwards and square (27 and 29 respectively) than forward (26). While some backward passes can be threatening (from the byline), he only did that once, after beating Scott Parker.
On the other flank, Samir Nasri rarely stayed wide on the right, instead coming inside, and with Malouda focusing on ball circulation and Yohan Cabaye having a poor game, Nasri was effectively France's chief creator. Nasri was probably France's greatest threat, but although he made dangerous and intelligent passes, he was unable to make the through-pass to break England down, and much like Ribery, made lots of square and backward passes.
Nasri's coming inside, combined with Oxlade-Chamberlain's more lax defensive play (compared to Milner) allowed Mathieu Debuchy to come forward almost at will. Despite both he and Evra coming forward, France didn't exploit the superiority it had in the wide areas. They could've done this two ways: either build attacks down that side and have the fullback and winger play combinations to take out the England defender, or bring on Olivier Giroud to give a target to the numerous crosses France played, which were never going to beat John Terry and Joleon Lescott without a player like Giroud, who never came on. As well as not bringing Giroud on, Debuchy almost never came inside, and France didn't build many attacks behind the 18-yard box.
England's solid two banks four, and the fact that it stopped France playing through made Karim Benzema extremely frustrated. Unable to receive the ball in, behind or from crosses (the one time he did receive the ball in behind, Johnson came across and intercepted the pass), he came deeper and deeper to get the ball, effectively becoming another ball-playing midfielder instead of a striker. That would've been fine except for the fact that neither Ribery nor Nasri made runs to take up the space that Benzema had vacated, meaning France had no one in goal-scoring positions who could combine with Nasri and Ribery. So while he played between the lines, and threatened from there, France played similarly to the way Spain played against Italy (until they brought on Torres). Thus, England was able to stop Benzema as a goal-scoring force.
There was, however, a 10-minute period shortly after England scored when France looked increasingly dangerous. England dropped deeper and deeper, and the midfield bank of four -- which had done fairly well until then -- dropped deeper, making England a blob of eight, rather than two banks of four. The group was too slow to push out, and Samir Nasri, seeing the whole picture in front of him, took advantage with a good, hard shot past Joe Hart. Even after the goal, England didn't push out, and that is when France looked most threatening, because it started to get more space in dangerous areas.
On the whole, England's performance will please Roy Hodgson. For most of the match, the team denied France the space to create, limiting the effectiveness of Ribery and Benzema. Hodgson's own concerns will be with his midfield; there is a concern about the indiscipline of Parker and Gerrard, and when they dropped deeper, England's defense became less effective. There will also be concerns about the anonymity of Ashley Young, but for now, a point against France is a good base to build on.
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