England Vs Norway: The Counter-Attack Is Key

A typically non-eventful friendly saw England labour to a 1 - 0 victory in Oslo. What clues on Roy Hodgson's approach, if any, can we take from his first match in charge?
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A typically non-eventful friendly saw England labour to a 1 - 0 victory in Oslo. What clues on Roy Hodgson's approach, if any, can we take from his first match in charge?

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When Ashley Young stroked home what turned out to be the winner in the 9th minute eyebrows were momentarily raised and sweaty backs briefly peeled off seats. Young’s strike was a moment of individual brilliance that briefly perked what had been a pervading pessimism amongst most England followers going into Euro 2012. In the 80 minutes that followed, however, there was very little else to get excited about. The game lagged, enthusiasm drained and bums sank back into the sofa. Same old England?

ITV’s reaction to the performace featured a desperately optimistic English contingent, pointing to the facts that this was England’s first win in Oslo since 1966 while Holland and Germany both lost yesterday in their friendlies. Not to let such a simplistic analysis pass, however, Roy Keane inflicted them with a glare of disdain as strong as a tackle on Alf-Inge Haaland. He argued to Adrian Chiles (who was all to ready to break into “we’re going to win it giddiness”) and co that this was a very average and unspectacular Norway side. Maybe true, but a 1-0 away victory to a side that finished only a point behind Portugal in qualifying, is clearly nothing to be sneered at, especially not for a team who only found their manager less than a month ago.

In truth, it would be folly to draw any strong conclusions about England’s Euro 2012 chances from on last night’s performance; it was neither remarkable, nor terrible. Young’s goal may have been the only moment of genuine quality from England yet there were still signs of encouragement in the first half especially.

Young’s strike was a moment of individual brilliance that briefly perked what had been a pervading pessimism amongst most England followers going into Euro 2012

Yesterday, I wrote on the resurgence of counter-attacking football this season and the benefits such an approach could provide England. In the first half, we saw that England could pose a genuine counter-attacking threat. The team’s best chances all came from counter-attacks; Stewart Downing’s rapid delivery to Carroll’s head early on, Young’s goal and Milner’s shot to the near post. These three chances in particular suggested England could form an efficient and effective counter-attacking unit. When England did build up sustained possession they looked unsure as to what to do with it, and did not create a chance through intricate, technical play. There was no impetus on pressing and dominating possession. Instead, England were perfectly happy in the first half to let Norway have the ball, soaking up pressure with ease. World-beaters they may not have been, but they were quietly impressive in their organization and efficiency.

Scott Parker in showed why he will be so important to England this year, breaking up play, mopping up loose balls and generally being the solid foundation for England to build breaks from. The even more impressive performer however, was to be found behind Parker. Joeleon Lescott marshaled the defence admirably. This performance in particular will provide Hodgson with food for thought; Terry and Cahill seemed to be a ready-made partnership yet Lescott’s performance may have been too good to ignore. Equally impressive was Ashley Young, excelling in a number 10 role, instigating most of England’s threatening breaks. This position many expected to go to Gerrard yet as the captain looked comfortable in a deep role yesterday (unfortuanetly the Hollywood balls stil linger) this could be a greater alternative. The remainder of the team were for the most part solid, if a little unremarkable. Only Phil Jones, calamitous in possession, truly disappointed.

When England did build up sustained possession they looked unsure as to what to do with it, and did not create a chance through intricate, technical play.

What about the second half you ask? We can all agree that it was not quite the same spectacle as the first, in fact it was not much of a spectacle at all. As too often is the case with international friendlies, the game had petered out into nothingness by the 70th minute mark. Baines had a free-kick pushed wide and Jones hit the post, while an Oxlade-Chamberlain cameo was exciting for around ten second. Yet England never truly looked threatening. What was of more concern, however, that England utterly failed to keep the ball with any competence in the second period. Granted, Norway did not pose much threat, yet against better opposition England would have been sorely punished for such wastefulness with the ball. The first half was an excellent display in counter-attacking football, but that counts for nothing if England cannot gain any control in a game after taking the lead. In the first half England looked like a team with a clear game plan, in the second they looked like a team of Jordan Hendersons.

We must remember, however, that it is easy to be critical from the comfort of our couch, and not quite so easy to form a cohesive international football team (missing a number of potential starters) with only a few day’s training to work from. This is very, very early days for Roy Hodgson’s England and as he said in a post-match interview, the foundations for his tenure will be laid over the following months, not over three days. There were enough signs for positivity in Oslo even if the game itself didn’t keep you away from Eurovision’s Russian grannies.

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