Early Doors

This is England 2012

Early Doors

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When England coach Gary Neville spotted Patrice Evra in the mixed zone at Donetsk's Donbass Arena he bounded across to his former Manchester United team-mate, gave him a manly embrace and in a curious Manc-French hybrid that reminded Early Doors of its own unsuccessful grapples with GCSE language studies congratulated him with the words "tres bien, tres bien!"

But really it should have been Evra lavishing congratulations on his one-time colleague in the United back four. On a night when a wasteful France played within themselves and were held by inferior opposition, it was England, with newly-calibrated expectations, who emerged from the Group D opener with a result that represented an excellent start to their Euro 2012 campaign.

England's performance in their 1-1 draw in Donetsk was pretty uninspiring stuff — with just three shots attempted and only one on target to France's 19 and 15 on target — but the fact the result was met with smiles and satisfaction spoke volumes as to England's arrested expectations in this tournament, and the new pragmatism with which the national side is viewed.

And not a moment too soon. For a country that for decades has consistently overestimated its own worth as a footballing force, this was arguably the first time that expectation has been perfectly aligned with achievement. England expected a defensive performance and a dogged battle for a point, and that is exactly what they got.

Rather than being criticised in the papers for a lack of ambition and an inability to hold on to the ball — both of which would have been fair criticism — England instead awoke to back page headlines like 'Kings of Joleon' and 'Jole Well Done'. The Mirror described the draw as a "tremendous start".

Under previous managerial regimes such an unadventurous— some might say borderline cowardly — approach would have been panned. But Hodgson's safety-first philosophy is in harmony with England's new reality and as such it has been readily accepted. After 90 minutes in which his side had 40 per cent possession and hit the target just once, Hodgson expressed the same emotion as many a watching England fan.

"I have to be proud of their performance," he said. "No player let us down and I was confident the players would not let us down. France don't panic in the final third so you have to be very disciplined in your defending. To finish 1-1 and ask the questions of them that we did, I've got to be happy.

"We kept them at bay and there weren't that many situations in front of our goal where I was panicking in any way. France are one of the favourites in the group. Everyone was tipping them to win the tournament, but I have lots of respect for Sweden and Ukraine."

If England do progress any further in this tournament it is abundantly clear it will not be due to adventurous, attacking football. ED is no stat-fiend and you won't find it poring over old Rothmans handbooks — well, not on a Friday night anyway — but one morsel of information from the reams of statistical analysis that UEFA distributes after every Euro 2012 game caught its eye particularly: in the 90 minutes they were on the pitch together, England forwards Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck combined for just one pass. One.

ED would probably have had a better success rate had it been dropped on the pitch with a blindfold on and told to run about randomly kicking out.

But this neutered approach is what is expected from England now. They've basically morphed into Ireland or Greece. ED isn't complaining you understand, it makes sense given the players at their disposal, but perhaps unsurprisingly it is a style that is never going to thrill observers.

And on Monday night, for much of the 90 minutes, the Donbass Arena was a big, sparkling, glowing bowl of apathy. One France fan was even captured by the TV cameras having a little snooze.

Wafting away a swarm of flies in the press box, ED was amused to note that after 10 minutes the most vocal supporters in the stadium had been Russia's - and no, for once that isn't a typo. Later livening things up with a chant of "We're going home in a coffin" to send up Sol Campbell's rather sensationalist views about racism and violence in Ukraine, England's supporters were nevertheless subdued — if less so than their team — in a stadium far from full to capacity.

But this is an England ED can live with: low-key, with an acceptance of the role of underdogs and an understanding that they cannot compete like-for-like with Europe's better football nations.

Though this evolution has been realised under Hodgson, it actually began under Fabio Capello when England defended deep against Spain and somehow beat the European and world champions back in November. On that occasion, and at home no less, they had just three shots to Spain's 21 —eerily similar to last night's statistics.

That was when the conception of a new, pragmatic England really began, but it was in Donetsk on Monday night when it was fully embraced as a philosophy.

This age of austerity in England's football ambition will be put briefly on hold against Ukraine and Sweden — they will have to show more intent against lower-ranked sides, even if Hodgson will stick with a robust 4-4-2 — but if they do qualify for the quarter-finals expect to see it in evidence once again.

An excellent draw against France, built on lowered ambition and expectation, gives England a good chance of taking on one of the bigger boys in the last 16.

- - -

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I didn't ask you to wait." — After a bunch of French reporters, Eurosport France's Maxime Dupuis included, wait two hours for Samir Nasri to do a post-match dope test so they can ask him for his thoughts on the game, they get slapped firmly in the face in the mixed zone. In a press conference, Nasri also told the French media that his celebration, when he put his finger to his lips, "was at you."

FOREIGN VIEW: "I'm overwhelmed with emotions, this is fantastic. I want to thank the fans. For us, every game is a final. I feel that I'm 10 years younger today. I want to say thank you to everyone who has worked with me over the past six months. I couldn't imagine that I'd be able to play because I had lots of problems with my knee and back." — An excellent first round of games culminates with the most romantic story of this, or indeed any other tournament as a 35-year-old Andriy Shevchenko gets all emotional after scoring twice to secure a 2-1 win for Ukraine against Sweden.

COMING UP: We revert back to Group A as the second round of group games get going tonight. Greece take on Czech Republic at 5pm before Poland host Russia at 7.45pm. A win puts Russia into the quarter-finals. We also have our Team of the Round for your enjoyment.

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