We're through. It's not been pretty but England have exceeded expectations by winning their group. I watched in frustration as Ukraine dominated possession, had the lion's share of the chances and were very unlucky not to draw the game at the very least. They were far more positive, fluent in possession and attractive to watch. They also failed to qualify.
The new England manager clearly values the need to build from solid foundations. England's back five have been excellent so far, probably rivalled only by Germany and their quarter final opponents Italy in that department. Apart from Steven Gerrard, who has arguably been the player of the tournament so far, the remainder of the team have yet to demonstrate any attacking fluency and confidence in our ability to get forward is conspicuous by its absence. If Hodgson had managed to achieve this at the expense of the team's ability to defend as a unit, we might be out of the tournament now.
I have reservations over the quality of players Hodgson has at his disposal - as the tournament progresses, you need more than one player to win you games. The midfield has been well organised but the ability to develop attacking play is limited at best. Ashley Young's end product has been very poor, James Milner is a hard working but very limited player on such an elevated stage of world football and Scott Parker, though inspirational in his ability to block and throw his body on the line when required, looks a yard too slow and does not have the ability to either make telling forward passes or drive into areas and look like scoring goals himself.
If England are going to score goals, it seems sensible to suggest that getting good quality ball in from wide areas is something we should perhaps try to do a little more of. Hodgson's insistence on defending deep as a team has been a successful tactic, but I'd like to see the full backs encouraged to get forward more, as both Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson have the potential to be a real threat in the opposition's half of the pitch.
England have not had one player caught offside in three games - an incredible statistic for me. It shows just how deep we have played as a team, and also how little threat we have posed opposition when our midfielders have driven forward with the ball - the time when opposing defenders have to close space and invariably leave areas for forwards to run into. We have to have possession of the ball higher up the pitch with enough bodies there to provide options so we keep it when it's up there.
As such, it may be worth considering playing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the centre of the park instead of Parker and playing the wide midfielders in slightly narrower positions to provide room for the full backs to get forward and also to provide more cover to allow Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gerrard to get forward more. Wayne Rooney does not play on the shoulder of the centre halves so needs at least one midfielder to get forward and interchange with. Danny Welbeck's pace should also be utilised a little more positively by asking him to stretch the opposition's defence and run into the channels more, which in turn will create more space in the hole for Rooney and any advancing midfielders to expose.
All that said, perhaps given the lack of quality available to him, Hodgson may be well served to stick to what's been successful so far and take his chances by keeping the opposition at bay and hoping to score from a set piece or a counter attack. The Italians have made it to the latter stages and even the finals of major tournaments in recent years by employing similar tactics.
We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that Spain may well have exited the competition had it not been for one Iker Casillas point-blank save from Ivan Rakitic's header deep into the second half of their game, or that Germany were put under considerable pressure by Denmark in the second half of their final game on Monday when one goal could have seen them go out of the tournament. England qualified with points to spare and despite Ukraine's admirable attacking intent, never really looked like losing the game. Though Germany and Spain have clearly been the best teams in the tournament so far, you could argue that England "managed" their way through the group stage whilst still learning about their options in what is a redevelopment phase for this group of players. Hodgson I'm sure would have picked sides with winning games first and foremost in his mind, but he clearly hasn't settled on his favoured attacking formation yet, so I remain optimistic that we'll get better both in this tournament and in the upcoming World Cup qualifying campaign.
For all England's attacking limitations, the England fans in Donetsk were the ones who were singing and dancing when the final whistle blew, and for a country that thrives on the feel good factor created when their team progress to the latter stages of a major tournament, that's what really matters.
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