Analysis: Lessons from France v England
With all the talk ahead of England's Euro 2012 Group D opener against France being of how vastly inferior Roy Hodgson's squad was to that of Laurent Blanc's France, the nature of the match that unfolded should have come as no surprise.
England were generally happy to sit men behind the ball and let France have possession 30 yards from their goal. Although it may not have made for a great spectacle, it seemed to do the trick, and England nabbed a point which should stand them in good stead as far as qualifying for the knock out stages is concerned.
DIFFERING PASSING STYLES
While much of France's possession in the early stages of the game was inside their own half, they spent the final stages of both the first and second halves camped just outside England's penalty area, passing and probing, hoping to find an opening.
Although a similar proportion of England's passes came in the final third (roughly one in four in both cases), they were never able to keep the ball long enough to build sustained pressure and drag French players out of position to work an opening for Danny Welbeck or Ashley Young to exploit.
SHOOTING FROM DISTANCE
Unsurprisingly, given their domination of the football, France had far more shots on goal Ã¢ÂÂ 21 to England's five.
But of France's shots, 15 came from outside the penalty area, where England were able to keep their opponents for most of the match. Of the six shots inside the area, only three hit the target, and only Alou Diarra's 34th minute header from a Samir Nasri set-piece brought the best out of Joe Hart Ã¢ÂÂ the only other two attempts on target were from an acute angle and saved relatively comfortably by the England keeper.
Of course, one of France's shots from outside the box Ã¢ÂÂ Samir Nasri's in the 39th minute Ã¢ÂÂ did hit the target and subsequently the back of the net. In this instance, both of England's deeper-lying midfielders Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard were poorly positioned to deal with Nasri and Franck Ribery after an exchange of passes, and were both unable to prevent or block Nasri's strike.
They appeared to learn their lesson in the second half, as not only was Nasri unable to get another shot in, but Gerrard and Parker both blocked three shots in central positions.
PARKER THE KEY FOR ENGLAND
Parker's performance was probably the one that best mirrored that of the team Ã¢ÂÂ defensively resolute, if not often particularly expressive or expansive in possession, although he did complete 92% of his passes (44/48), making him England's most prolific passer on the night.
However his all-action approach Ã¢ÂÂ or perhaps even his recent injuries Ã¢ÂÂ saw him tire as the second half wore on, and the Spurs man was eventually replaced by Liverpool's Jordan Henderson in the 78th minute.
Although Henderson is generally tidy in possession, he doesn't have the same defensive tenacity as Parker, and that showed in his and England's performances in the final stages of the match. Whereas Parker had made three blocks, attempted five tackles and made four interceptions in 78 minutes, Henderson was unable to perform any.
This wasn't entirely Henderson's fault, of course Ã¢ÂÂ the players around him had played well over an hour in searing heat and England as a team were struggling to keep possession for longer than a few seconds. But it did signal a significant swing in the flow of the match, which saw France dominate possession in the final twelve minutes of regulation time and the two minutes of injury time.
England completed just 19 passes in those 14 minutes (1.36 passes a minute), compared to 268 in the previous 78 minutes (3.72 passes a minute). France's passing naturally became more frequent, rising from 6.41 passes a minute in the first 78, to 7.71 passes a minute in the final 14.
The below diagram shows exactly how dominant France were in terms of possession after Parker's exit.
ENGLAND TAKE THE LEAD BUT LOSE MOMENTUM
But that wasn't the first spell in which England looked a distant second best. England started the match well, created the best opportunity when James Milner rounded Hugo Lloris, then took the lead on the half-hour through Joleon Lescott Ã¢ÂÂ but having gone in front, England froze.
The tempo immediately dropped and England sank back to the edge of their own penalty area as France took control of the game. The below diagrams show exactly how much further the match swung in France's favour during that period.
This was the period of the match in which Franck Ribery started to have more influence. Over the 90 minutes the Bayern Munich man attempted to take on opponents 11 times Ã¢ÂÂ eight more than any other player Ã¢ÂÂ although he was largely unsuccessful in doing so in the attacking third, where he was dispossessed on six of his nine attempts.
Ribery also created six goalscoring chances, the most of any player on the pitch, and five were from short, neat backwards passes. This contrasts starkly with the approach of Steven Gerrard, England's biggest creative influence, who supplied three chances Ã¢ÂÂ all from set-pieces.
MILNER: A DIFFERENT TYPE OF WINGER
Although he popped up right across the pitch, Ribery did most of his attacking down the French left, where he came up against England right back Glen Johnson and the versatile James Milner. Interestingly, it was Milner who did more of the defensive dirty work in that zone, making five successful tackles from five attempts and two interceptions compared to Johnson's one tackle and two interceptions.
Nobody made more tackles than Milner, although Diarra and Gerrard also managed five. This would certainly seem to justify Roy Hodgson's decision to pick Milner ahead of a more direct attacking threat on the right wing, such as Arsenal's Theo Walcott.
AN ISOLATED ATTACK
One England player who was selected to provide that attacking verve was Manchester United's Ashley Young, but the 26-year-old struggled to make much impact. Young failed to have a single shot on goal, and created just one opening for a team-mate Ã¢ÂÂ although that was one of the best of the game, when he slid Milner through only for the midfielder to hit the side netting having beaten Lloris.
Young and United teammate Danny Welbeck were victims of England sitting so deep: they suffered from being isolated so far up the pitch. Many of the passes Young received were hit long, and they weren't particularly regular. He would certainly have rather had the kind of service enjoyed by France's Samir Nasri, who received nearly five times as many passes over the 90 minutes, many of which were from team-mates joining him in the final third.
England will need to bridge the gap between attack and defence if they are to pose more of an attacking threat against Sweden on Friday.