Roy Hodgson has looked to make the Three Lions a more organised and purposeful team but they needed a slice of luck to beat Ukraine and will require a better display on Sunday
Passing judgment on Roy Hodgson's England is tricky. The Three Lions won both of their pre-Euro 2012 friendlies, topped Group D ahead of a strong-looking France team with their joint-best points total at a European Championship and now enter their quarter-final against Italy in a positive state of mind.
There is a purposeful and organised air to the England team and their coach, but the performances in this competition have not always lived up to that billing. They successfully stifled les Bleus but when they have been asked to come out of their shell against inferior opposition, they have looked unsure for significant periods.
Hodgson, of course, presided over a West Brom team that boasted a very solid record away from the Hawthorns but lost more games than any Premier League team outside of the relegation places at home. When Hodgson's teams are asked to take the initiative, they often look fairly blunt in attack and lose some of the defensive solidity which the coach promotes.
Sure, England ended up keeping a clean sheet against Ukraine, but Marko Devic's 'phantom goal' epitomised the kind of defending they were quickly sucked into. This country loves a brave centre-back – put 'Terry Butcher' into an image search engine and one iconic photo will dominate the results – but the clearance by John Terry that was just too late to be described as 'last-ditch' was a result of the way Oleg Blokhin's team had brutally exposed the Chelsea captain's lack of pace in the first place.
It was not the only time one of Terry, Joleon Lescott or Scott Parker was forced into a heroic block or desperate challenge because of a breakdown in shape or organisation elsewhere. No one is denying the results under Hodgson have been very good, but within the performances there are causes for concern. So far, there has been an element of luck to England's success.
They can only rely on the combination of team spirit and good fortune that has got them this far for so long. The assessment of their first major tournament under Hodgson really comes down to this; a quarter-final berth was the expectation, but really the Three Lions have achieved little more than the team in 2010 that was slaughtered by the British press.
This is not to be overly negative about the job Hodgson has done so far. Most would now stand behind the FA's decision to opt for the 64-year-old, with his vast experience at clubs and countries across the globe, over the popular but perhaps just too optimistic Harry Redknapp. Hodgson's approach, in theory, has been the right one given the calibre of players at his disposal. He, and his team, are just yet to quite perfect it.
Against the Azzurri, they must get closer. Theoretically, the approach required for this match should be more in Hodgson's comfort zone – the Italian midfield trio of Daniele De Rossi, Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio, presuming Cesare Prandelli does not decide to revert to a back three, should dominate possession and so for England, it will be a case of absorbing pressure and springing forward on the break.
Italy have looked a stylish and technically gifted outfit but they have not always been overly penetrative in attack. Coping with the breaks of Marchisio, who will readily join the attack, while denying Pirlo space from a deeper position is one balance England will need to achieve but they should have the opportunity to use their full-backs as passing outlets.
Expectations outside of the England camp were the lowest in recent memory before the tournament, but that is not to say the same attitude was adopted internally. "All I'm going to say is we've got the squad, we're more organised than we have ever been and we are hard to beat now," Wayne Rooney commented. Joe Hart sounded bullish almost out of frustration at how the Three Lions' chances had consistently been played down.
It may be an exaggeration to describe Sunday's match as 'all or nothing' as far as England's Euro 2012 campaign goes, but it is not far off. Achieving a semi-final berth on foreign soil for the first time in over 20 years would represent a remarkable achievement, given the circumstances; Hodgson is less than two months into the job and his team is one in transition, caught between two generations.
Suffer elimination, though, and Euro 2012 will not be a tournament remembered nearly as keenly as the 1990 World Cup or 1996 European Championship are. England were fortunate to scrape to a 3-2 victory over a spirited Cameroon team after extra-time in Naples 22 years ago; this time around, a repeat would do just fine.