England did enough to stifle a gifted French team to ensure a stalemate in the opening match of Group D, with a point a fair reflection for a match that was tightly contested and saw impasse for long periods. Joleon Lescott headed England in front on the half-hour mark only to see Samir Nasri slip the ball through a ruck of bodies in the English box 9 minutes later. Both teams seemed happier to draw the game as the second half wore on and both camps will be happy with a point.
France; (4-2-3-1) Lloris, Debuchy, Mexes, Rami, Evra, Diarra, Cabaye (Ben Arfa 84), Nasri, Malouda (Martin 84), Ribery, Benzema
Scorer- Nasri ‘39
England; (4-4-1-1) Hart, Johnson, Terry, Lescott, Cole, Milner, Parker (Henderson 77), Gerrard, Oxlade-Chamberlain (Defoe 77), Young, Welbeck (Walcott 90)
Scorer- Lescott 30
How it played out
Roy Hodgson sprang a surprise in his team selection by starting 18 year old Oxlade-Chamberlain on the left, whilst the mobility and athleticism of Danny Welbeck got the nod ahead of Andy Carroll up front.
It was as expected for France as Laurent Blanc persisted with Phillipe Mexes at the back, whilst Florent Malouda’s experience was given the nod through the middle of France’s midfield attacking three.
Even though Hodgson’s team selection may have surprised, his game-plan went as expected in the way that England seemed content to let France have the ball, sitting deep with an organised two banks of four in order to minimize France’s creative quality between the attacking lines. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pace was the outlet on the break and it was his run that saw an early chance open up for James Milner, who shot wide after rounding Hugo Lloris.
England were content to let France have possession throughout, the French clocked a stat of 65% and bettered the possession stats in all sections of the match except immediately after half time, but, a header from Alliou Diarra aside, struggled to really create any clear-cut chances in front of Joe Hart’s goal.
With England keeping a regiment narrow two-banks-of-four-shape in front of their goal, the only real outlet for France was to go wide and with Samir Nasri and Franck Ribery naturally coming inside, the onus was on the full-backs of Martin Debuchy and Patrice Evra to provide the attacking threat from wide areas. They both got forward admirably, but the standard of crosses was usually poor and England dealt comfortably. This was a clear ploy from Hodgson to reduce the threat of Karim Benzema who usually likes to pull his defender around and make space for others to run into the box. Here, the supply line to the Real Madrid centre-forward was cut-off and Benzema had nowhere to go against a compact, deep English back-line, so he had to feed off crosses which were well dealt with comfortably by the aerial ability of Joleon Lescott and John Terry. The number nine was also quite restricted to hitting long range shots that were not threatening.
Samir Nasri was France’s most creative outlet, drifting in from the right he caused a lot of problems between the English lines. Ashley Cole was occupied by the threat of Debuchy and was reluctant to follow Nasri in field, whilst Steven Gerrard understandably didn’t want to get sucked back into a deep position, so Nasri had a free channel to drift in. It was ironically when England’s two central midfielders had been forced too deep that Nasri made a breakthrough, shooting from the edge of the box to the right of Joe Hart, who perhaps should have done better.
France were the overwhelming attacking force here, hitting 21 shots compared to England’s 5, but James Milner’s chance was the most clear of the game. This came after Oxlade-Chamberlain broke into the attacking midfield position centrally to link-up with an otherwise anonymous Ashley Young. Blanc had clearly instructed Diarra to remain close to Young in all areas of the pitch and so therefore, the Manchester United man struggled to get into the game. His lack of space saw a gap open up between midfield and attack that Gerrard and Parker, overloaded with their priority of defensive duties, found hard to bridge. Yohann Cabaye pounced on Gerrard’s tiredness to spark forward on numerous occasions in the final 15 minutes, whilst an exhausted Parker was replaced on 77 minutes. With Young out of the game (he managed only 12 passes) the duo were compensating for his lack of influence, so it was an admirable effort in the heat of Donetsk.
Danny Welbeck ran the line superbly, full of mobility and his constant running gave enough concern to Adil Rami and Phillipe Mexes, but England mostly (due to Young’s anonymity) struggled to get the ball to him in central areas. Evra and Debuchy, although very enthusiastic to get forward, stayed deep in fear of being caught on the break with English pace on the flanks, so he was often denied when supplied on the channels too, so moves often broke down too easily, especially in the second half.
With that, and France’s struggles to break a stern, laborious English defence down, the second-half filtered away to a virtual non-event. There was an array of long-range shooting from Benzema, but nothing too threatening to Joe Hart whose possible error for Nasri’s goal, despite claims he couldn’t see it, was very impressive when called upon in the English goal.
Both sides made very late subs when considered the direction the game was going in and the searing heat, but it was an indication that the two manager’s would rather settle for the share of points rather than risk a possible counter-attack in search of a winner. The delay in bringing on Theo Walcott to the last-minute was a surprise however; his pace would have tested Mexes and Rami had he been given more time to make an impact.
France’s Star Man
Samir Nasri– was excellent at drifting into little pockets of space between the lines and this tournament, after the displays of Ozil and Sneijder on Saturday, is becoming a hunting-ground for that type of attacking midfielder. He was available in all areas of the pitch to receive a total of 97 passes, and created 8 chances in the final third, the most in one game at these finals behind Sneijder’s excellent showing against Denmark. England didn’t really know how to pick up his constant movement without distorting their highly organised shape, so he was allowed to persistently buzz around the attacking areas, ultimately scoring the equalising goal.
England’s Star Man
Scott Parker– the Spurs man was his effervescent self at tenaciously breaking play up and tracking France’s highly gifted technical players in attacking areas. He wasn’t specifically watching a man, just the area in between his midfield line (occupied by Gerrard) and his defensive one. When Franck Ribery tried to break infield to escape the attention of Glenn Johnson and James Milner, he would be met by Parker’s presence, rendering the Bayern Munich man almost ineffectual, apart from a number of cheap free-kicks he was awarded. Subbed after a gigantic disciplined display in the heat, he will deserve the days off before the Sweden game.
What to expect in the upcoming games
France didn’t look too bad here and showed signs of a cohesive, fluid attacking unit that struggled in the face of a well-organised English defence. After Ukraine beat Sweden in their opening game, they may experience a similar opposition in Kiev on Friday, but the key will to be more ambitious in allowing Yohann Cabaye forward earlier in the game. The well-publicised “suspect” French defence wasn’t really tested here, but England got a clear opening after they attacked Alliou Diarra in the middle, his frailty could be tested if he was to face an attacking midfielder with more guile and presence than Ashley Young.
England meanwhile face a different proposition in that they may have to change system. This was always going to be a “sit back and invite pressure” job, but Sweden may present a chance for Hodgson to release the inhibitions and get England further up the pitch as a prevailing attacking force. It is hard to imagine Ashley Young surviving in a central position after his poor performance here, and he may be shifted back out to the wing for Oxlade-Chamberlain who may not be needed for his pace against a deeper Swedish back-line.
Of course, that means a gap in attacking midfield, so Hodgson may be tempted to partner Welbeck with the direct option of Andy Carroll. This will give England more of a route from midfield to attack, and also allow Welbeck to see more service in central-areas. Defensively, there will be no need to keep the deep defensive line that was on display in the Donbass Arena, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a direct threat, he will not have the pace to play on the shoulder. A threat will come with his control and highly technical link-up, but England will be contented with keeping that as far away from the goal as possible.