Stubborn England gain grudging respect

Unfancied and unloved, England arrived at Euro 2012 written off by many of their own supporters, but their solid defensive displays and stubborn team unity earned grudging respect even if they did little to set pulses racing.

Beaten only once, and then on penalties, England were finally, but deservedly, eliminated 4-2 in the shootout by a superior Italy team after riding their luck in a goalless draw at the end of extra-time in Sunday's quarter-final in Kiev.

Having slogged through a 1-1 draw with France and then overcome Sweden 3-2 with a late goal before beating co-hosts Ukraine 1-0 in demanding Group D games that stretched them to their limits, it was clear England exceeded expectations.

But their dignity under duress and the promise of a clutch of younger players introduced by new manager Roy Hodgson should ensure he continues to retain the confidence of the squad and is afforded cordial treatment by the media.

Two years on from England's sorry exit at the 2010 World Cup finals, when they left Rustenberg in disarray after a 4-1 thumping by Germany, Hodgson should take satisfaction from steadying what appeared to be a rocking, if not mutinous, ship.

Former manager Fabio Capello's lack of command of the English language and the complex relations within the group had left Hodgson, appointed on May 1, with an awkward task and a need to make several difficult decisions.

He took on the challenge and made his calls with shrewdness and courage, backing selections like defenders Glen Johnson and John Terry against the views of his critics.

HODGSON'S CHOICE

Their performances, and those of the squad in general including newcomers like forward Danny Welbeck, justified Hodgson's choices, even if they lacked inspiration thanks to the dearth of imaginative, creative players.

Not even the return of rusty striker Wayne Rooney, who was suspended for the opening two group games, could inject any vim into a blunt attack and dull team.

It is unlikely that injured absentees like midfielders Jack Wilshere or Frank Lampard would have made much difference.

After the 2010 World Cup, Capello's future was called into doubt but he was retained, if not with a resounding vote of confidence, before choosing to depart in February this year.

Given that backdrop, and only two warm-up games, Hodgson did much as expected by sticking to a pragmatic and defensive approach as England went unbeaten, barring Sunday's penalty loss, through their first six games under his control.

For Hodgson, the greatest problem - and biggest challenge - is to find gifted, dynamic midfield players so that, if England qualify for the 2014 World Cup finals, they can go to Brazil and play football that is brighter than the turgid, industrial game on display at Euro 2012.

England showed they have a fine goalkeeper in Joe Hart, can defend stoutly and are well-organised, but they rarely crossed the halfway line with distinction or purpose and, overall, demonstrated a lamentable lack of technique and passing ability.

TECHNICALLY INFERIOR

In four games, they failed to enjoy even 50 percent of the possession - statistics that prove England are unable to retain the ball because their passing and technical levels are inferior to their rivals.

Hodgson knows and understands the problem, but believes that in time the squad can improve sufficiently to make an impression at a tournament and enjoy a significant knockout victory against a major rival nation for the first time since 1966.

"It's only a matter of time," he said. "If this group of players continue to show the same degree of determination and will to be a team, and work so hard as a team, we've got quality players who can come into the squad who will add to the competition.

"So I'm convinced it won't be that long before we beat a top nation. We had our chance... we came close to taking it, but not quite.

"I think we've got to keep building on the work we've done at this tournament and make sure that the good things remain and we work on some of the things we could have done a little bit better."

He knows he will also be heavily reliant on English football's new national training centre at St George's Park for a long-awaited change in basic attitudes and expectations - and a supply of more technically accomplished players.


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