Hodgson must be brave to expose Ukraine's defensive failings

The England manager has meticulously assessed the strengths and weaknesses of each of the Three Lions' opponents so far and could be rewarded for attacking Oleg Blokhin's team
By Oliver Platt | England Expert

If Roy Hodgson has a grand strategy for the England national team, he has decided that now is not the time to try to implement it. Questions of style of play and identity belong in the offices and on the training pitches of the St. George's Park National Football Centre, at least for now. The senior team and their coach are concerned only with their next game.

Three Lions fans have glimpsed the future, of course, in the likes of Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, both of whom have started at least one match at Euro 2012. But the overriding philosophy of Hodgson's England so far has been one of pragmatism. They assess their opponents' weaknesses and aim to exploit them.

There is very little Hodgson will not change in order to contain a threat posed or take advantage of a flaw. Against France, the manager selected Welbeck and Ashley Young in attack and Oxlade-Chamberlain on the left wing. That was an attempt to stretch the sometimes cumbersome centre-back partnership of Philippe Mexes and Adil Rami. James Milner, the right winger, was a more conservative choice tasked with helping Glen Johnson deal with Franck Ribery.

Andy Carroll was recalled against Sweden and duly converted a cross against a team that had struggled badly to deal with high balls aimed at their own penalty area.

Compare this to the debate that raged after Spain had drawn with Italy over whether Vicente del Bosque should persist with his experimental strikerless formation or turn to a recognised centre forward. The discussion did not centre around whether the Republic of Ireland defence would struggle more with Cesc Fabregas in a withdrawn role, or Fernando Torres playing on their shoulders; it was assumed that if Spain could play their best football, no one would be able to stop them. The opposition was irrelevant.




Johnson, Terry, Lescott, Cole
Gerrard, Parker
Walcott, Rooney, Young

England do not boast the European Championship and World Cup winners' medals that might allow them to enter competitions with such confidence, of course. Hodgson's approach has, so far, paid off as well as could be expected, with only a draw in their final Group D match against Ukraine needed to add at least one more fixture to the national team's summer schedule. Greece, it should be remembered, adapted for each individual game in 2004 with such tactical discipline that they eventually took home their country's first-ever major international crown.

Otto Rehhagel's class of '04 were renowned for their defensive solidity, attacking in a functional style and maximising the threat they posed from set-pieces. That is not to say, however, that to be pragmatic is to be cautious; as Pep Guardiola pointed out, the biggest risk in football is not taking any risks at all.

A match from which only a point is needed may seem like an illogical time to adopt a more adventurous outlook but England are also competing for top spot in Group D, however unlikely it seems that France will not sweep aside Sweden. Furthermore, when Hodgson studies Oleg Blokhin's Ukraine team, he will find plenty in the way of areas of interest.

There are hazards to be managed, such as right winger Andriy Yarmolenko, and, if fit, a rejuvenated Andriy Shevchenko participating in what could be his last game of international football. England will also hope to prevent Bayern Munich's Anatoliy Tymoshchuk from exerting too much influence.

Behind Tymoshchuk is where Ukraine's problems lie. They can have few complaints with the performances of goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov so far, but against France the four players tasked with protecting him looked a less than sturdy unit.

At right-back is Oleh Husyev. The 29-year-old is a winger by trade and while his penchant for advancing forward has helped him form a dangerous partnership with Yarmolenko, it also means that he will vacate his position along the back line. There will be space for Young, a player as creative as any England possess on his day, to play in.

Yevhen Selin, 24, will play at left-back and plies his trade at club level for Vorskla Poltava, who finished eighth in the Ukrainian Premier League last season. Vorskla trailed champions Shakhtar Donetsk by 42 points and Selin's lack of experience against top-class opposition showed against France as he was troubled by the pace and direct running of Jeremy Menez. Enter, Theo Walcott.

It would seem natural for Hodgson to lean towards sending his team out in a more aggressive 4-2-3-1 formation if Walcott does feature. Young, too, has looked restricted as part of a flat midfield four but will surely improve with the help of Wayne Rooney.

England should remember that they will be generally regarded as one of the weaker teams to progress to the quarter-finals if they do overcome Ukraine, and that assessment is probably accurate. Discipline and teamwork will be the keys to their continued participation in Poland and Ukraine.

In Donetsk on Tuesday, though, they might have an opportunity to enjoy a game on the front foot.

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