Two friendlies, two wins and a hint of what to expect in Poland and Ukraine this spring. England, it seems, have taken the Chelsea template and transferred it to international football. And to some degree of success, as well. No, the back-to-back 1-0 victories over Norway and Belgium were not eye-catching, but if the Three Lions can sustain their little run through the group stage of Euro 2012 no one will be able to say it wasn’t effective.
Effective football, as it happens, delivered a European Cup to London for the first time last month when Chelsea, massively outgunned against both Barcelona and Bayern Munich, defeated the two continental powers in succession by absorbing pressure, minimizing quality shots against and taking their chances when an opening was presented.
England’s approach in their two pre-Euro friendlies was similar, a fact that isn’t all that surprising given the late appointment of manager Roy Hodgson and his subsequent scramble to cobble together a squad in time for the Group D opener against France. Possession football, and more specifically fluently possessive football, requires familiarity, technical ability and the confidence for expression—elements England aren’t exactly blessed with.
Not that they need them. Chelsea proved that in last season’s Champions League, and Greece won the 2004 European Championship after winning all three of their knockout round matches by 1-0 scorelines. It was a mostly forgettable three weeks of football, but try telling that to the Greeks.
It isn’t so much how you win as if you win, and while the idealists can preach about “winning the right way” and futebol-arte (platitudes all) there isn’t an honest soul among them who could look you in the eye and claim the ideal was somehow more important than the result.
England, to that end, are compiling results. On either side of a 3-2 loss to the Netherlands in February they have won four matches, all of them against competitive sides and all by 1-0 scorelines. They beat Spain and Sweden in November; they’ve seen off Norway and Belgium this spring.
No England player started all four matches, but Scott Parker and James Milner played from the beginning in three. That tells you a lot about the identity of this England side: they are physical, efficient and committed. Don’t come looking for flamboyance and ball control, because you won’t find them. But as we were reminded at Euro 2004, in the recently-completed Champions League and again on Saturday at Wembley, there is no one template for winning. And the one England have may just be enough to spring a few surprises in the next few weeks.
England XI v Norway: Green-Jones, Jagielka, Lescott, Baines-Milner, Parker, Gerrard, Downing-Young-Carroll
England XI v Belgium: Hart-Johnson, Cahill, Terry, Cole-Milner, Parker, Gerrard, Oxlade-Chamberlain-Young-Welbeck
Elsewhere in Group D, France have won their first two tune-up matches, beating Iceland 3-2 on Sunday in Valenciennes and Serbia 2-0 on Thursday in Reims.
Hatem Ben Arfa and Jeremy Menez were handed starts against Iceland, and while they impressed Les Bleus were far more effective when Franck Ribery and Mathieu Valbuena were introduced in the second half. Montpellier striker Olivier Giroud put in a decent showing as well, setting up Adil Rami’s late goal, and gives manager Laurent Blanc an option should he want to start another striker alongside Karim Benzema.
Former France captain Patrice Evra carried his sub-par club form into the Iceland game and was dropped for the Serbia friendly, and Lorent Koscielny looks certain to have one of the central defensive places nailed down. Ribery, meanwhile, is looking every bit as dangerous for France as he did for Bayern Munich this season and could well feast on the England right-back on June 11.
France XI v Iceland: Mandanda-Debuchy, Rami, Mexes, Evra-Cabaye, Gourcuff-Ben Arfa, Nasri, Menez-Benzema
France XI v Serbia: Lloris-Reveillere, Koscielny, Mexes, Clichy-Cabaye, M’Vila-Nasri, Ribery, Malouda-Benzema
Sweden have played just one pre-tournament friendly so far and, like France, beat a competitive Iceland side 3-2. Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored after just two minutes, and Ola Toivonen and Christian Wilhelmsson found the back of the net for the Swedes as well.
Manager Erik Hamren will likely go into Euro 2012 with a line-up similar to the one he fielded in Gothenburg, which means Anderlecht left-back Behrang Safari could well start ahead of Martin Olsson, who plays his club football for Blackburn Rovers. There is also competition at right-back with Celtic’s Mikael Lustig and Genoa’s Andreas Granqvist jockeying for the starting job.
Up front, Markus Rosenberg started in tandem with Ibrahimovic against Iceland, although the thinking is that if Galatasaray’s Johan Elmander is healthy next week he’ll replace the Werder Bremen striker against Serbia.
Sweden XI v Iceland: Isaksson-Granqvist, Mellberg, J.Olsson, Safari-Larsson, Elm, Kallstrom, Toivonen-Ibrahimovic, Rosenberg
Ukraine, finally, have played two friendlies, and the results couldn’t have been more different. First there was an impressive 4-0 win against Estonia on June 28 that immediately raised expectations in the co-hosting nation, but those hopes were quickly dampened by a 3-2 loss to Austria on June 1.
Manager Oleh Blokhin started nearly identical line-ups in the two matches—something of a surprise given his call-up of 43 players in the past 12 months. Ukraine have one more friendly (against Turkey) before facing Sweden in their Group D opener on June 11, and if the tinkering Blokhin goes back to the drawing board his side will likely enter Euro 2012 with more question-marks than settled positions.
Ukraine XI v Estonia: Pyatov-Gusev, Mikhalik, Khacheridi, Selin-Tymoshchuk, Nazarenko-Yarmolenko, Voronin, Konoplyanka-Devic
Ukraine XI v Austria: Goryainov-Gusev, Mikhalik, Khacheridi, Rakitskiy-Tymoshchuk, Nazarenko-Yarmolenko, Voronin, Konoplyanka-Devic
Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @peterssoccer