It was not more than two months ago that the English national team was without a coach and only weeks out from attempting to overturn a half-century cup drought at Euro 2012. It was not more than a month ago that controversy over racial slurs had the team divided. And it was less than a week ago that England needed to beat hosts Ukraine to get into the knockout stages.
But in footballing terms, that’s all like ages ago.
Roy Hodgson and his men are heading into the quarterfinal match against Italy on a high. With two wins under their belt and a well-earned draw, this team that many thought could struggle to make it out of the group, considering the injuries and suspensions, won a relatively tough Group D and are looking one of the more impressive sides in doing so.
Looking at the numbers alone will not give you this impression.
The team itself has been mediocre in terms of production, scoring five goals and conceding three. Their plus-two goal difference is not the worst, but also not the most impressive. They have the third-worst possession (42.3), seventh-best passing percentage (82.7), 12th-most shots per game (10.3) and fourth-most shots conceded (17.7).
All of that can be added up to produce a reading that says they are okay, but not great and their chances of progressing hinge more on their ability to outlast an opponent than outplay them.
Good thing for England fans: that is exactly how this team is constructed.
In this day when the game is analyzed down to specific touches and the huge brand expansion of clubs around the world, the nature of international tournament play is often lost on fans.
It is not about steady, even-keeled results over an eight-month period. It is about doing what it takes to get to the knockout stages and then winning three games (in the case of Euros) by whatever means possible—survival.
No one has been better at surviving than England, whose results are all more indicative of this philosophy to the games than anyone left in the tournament.
The 1-1 draw to France was an ideal result considering the situation. No Wayne Rooney left a big hole up front and a draw ensured that Hodgson still held his fate in his own hands. The 3-2 victory over Sweden was an example of them pushing when necessary and showing the quality they can have in the attack when needed. The 1-0 win over Ukraine was caution and reason winning out against a formative and impassioned opponent.
You need look no further than the team selection that is constantly chosen against perhaps the preferred style of many fans to see that this is the tactic. The simple 4-4-2 makes the opposition have to break down two banks of players before even being able to test one of the tournament's best keepers.
With the defensive line composed of primarily defense-only-minded players, there are rarely holes to be had. Even the midfield line is more defensive than not, with Scott Parker and James Milner getting the starts over Jordan Henderson or Theo Walcott.
It is all about prevention as opposed to creation, where the players are expected to fill their roles first and only journey beyond them if safe.
This kind of play has been chastised by a majority of fans and media “experts.” Just watch the halftime show of the US broadcast on ESPN and you will see an ignorant Alexi Lalas berating the English for not being aggressive enough with the ball. Come back 45 minutes later and you will see the fool backtracking and stumbling over his words the same way he did on his feet when he played for the US national team.
When England takes the pitch Sunday against Italy, there will be few changes to what we have seen thus far.
The back line will sit deep and kick it up when they get the ball. The forwards will stay high, hoping to latch on to a through ball or break on the counter. The midfield will stay where they are, backing up on defense and moving forward to support the attack.
But it will work once again.
This is where England like to be, where the outcome is tangible—win or go home. This clunky block style of play suits them perfectly, where as long as Italy push and push, attempting to lay siege on the Three Lions, England must stand strong and resist; what they do best.
England looks great heading into the knockout stage because no one’s game is better-suited for survival than theirs.
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