The much anticipated match between England and France ended in a 1-1 draw. It was a match where both sides in reality were never out of their second gear. France had most of the possession, and most of the game was played in England's half of the pitch. France, despite their possession advantage, lacked enough penetration as England held their rigid shape.
Many a times in this match, one saw Steven Gerrard tracking runs for French midfielders and making last ditch tackles. It was unlike what we have come to expect from Steven Gerrard. A technically gifted player, but whose tactical positioning and discipline has often been under criticism, played his more of a defensive midfielder role to near perfection. The Liverpool midfielder was England's best player on the pitch and though his wonderful free-kick, which was headed in by Lescott, will be highlighted, it was his wonderful defensive display which was worth noting. In fact it was perhaps one of Gerrard's best displays for the Three Lions. When Roy Hodgson, deployed Parker and Gerrard in the center of the park, it was expected that Gerrard will join in attack while Parker will cover at the back forming an almost 4-1-4-1 formation, But Hodgson was circumspect, he asked both Gerrard and Parker to stay deep, while leaving the attacking to the wingers and forwards. This resulted in the formation being shifted to 4-2-3-1. Similarly while defending, Hodgson used two blanks of four in a very narrow formation, to Strange France in the midfield. While defending the formation shifted to 4-4-2.
Coming back to Steven Gerrard, it was refreshing to see him playing with so much defensive responsibility. He was hardly caught out of position and helped in maintaining the shape of the team. Fans are used to see Gerrard making late runs into the box, testing the goal-keepers with his long rang pile-drivers and playing out Hollywood cross-field pass. But today they might have seen the evolution of Gerrard, tactically.
The similarity between this England-France match and recently concluded champions league final between Chelsea and Bayern Munich are stunning. In fact Hodgson has simply employed the tactics used by Roberto Di Matteo in this England set up. This comes from the fact that neither Chelsea nor England are capable to out-passing technically better teams like Barcelona or Bayern and France as in this case. England squad is already depleted due to injuries, suspension and selection surprises. Either way, it is a much weakened England team than yesteryears. In these strenuous conditions, Hodgson is perhaps the best Englishman the country could have had as their manager. The former Fulham and West Brom manager is an expert in overachieving with limited resources at his disposal. England does have limited resources. Hence, it is but natural for Hodgson to use these defensive tactics. Many will call these negative tactics, but ask Chelsea, they will tell you, it is better to be the champions of Europe playing this way than to be thrashed by Barcelona trying to play open and attacking football.
One of the main reason behind Chelsea's success was the fact how Di Matteo used Frank Lampard. When Andre Villas-Boas was at the helm Chelsea struggled primarily because the Portuguese manager was unable to fit Lampard and Mata into the same team. He played his team's best attacking player, Mara, out wide and an ageing Lampard in an attacking role. That simply didn't work. Di Matteo pushed Lampard back and played him as a deep-lying playmaker alongside Essien or Mikel, similar to the role Pirlo plays in Juventus and Italy, while he played Mata in his favored central role, behind the striker. This gave Chelsea wonderful balance and symmetry. Unfortunately for Hodgson, Lampard is injured, but it looks like he has molded Steven Gerrard in the role Frank played for Chelsea as the deep-lying play maker. Gerrard for his part has adapted in this role brilliantly, at least in the game against France.
The above changes have reduced some of England's creativity going forward, but it has turned them into a team who are hard to beat, especially against opponents who don't have good wingers. France did possess Ribery, but he is not old fashioned winger, he is someone who drifts inside from wide areas, and continues in that direction. How many times did Ribery go down the by-line and crossed to the box? None. Narrow teams will suffer against England.
Against relatively smaller teams in the group like Ukraine and Sweden, one might see England playing in a much open formation. But the tactics used against France will be their primary weapon. Chelsea won their first Champions league title using similar tactics, when no one gave them iota of a chance, now the question remains whether Hodgson can win England their first European championship following similar tactics.