England 1-0 Ukraine: cagey game
Wayne Rooney returned to head in a simple goal, and England finish top of Group D.
Roy Hodgson dropped Andy Carroll to bring in Rooney, so Danny Welbeck returned to his position as the primary centre-forward.
Oleh Blokhin made various changes – Andriy Shevchenko wasn’t fit enough to start, and Andriy Voronin was dropped, so there was an all-new centre-forward partnership of Artem Milevskiy and Marco Devic. Serhiy Nazarenko was replaced by Denys Harmash, and Yaroslav Rakitskiy came in at the back.
Like all three of England’s matches, this was poor technical game lacking in quality, and many of the chances came from set-pieces and crosses.
This was a clash between two similar sides – 4-4-1-1, with one forward dropping off into midfield. It created a cagey, frustrating game that saw little creativity from the centre of the pitch, and both sides looking to work the ball into wide positions.
The most interesting battle was Oleh Huisev against Ashley Young. The Ukrainian right-back played extremely high up the pitch, pushing Young back towards his own goal. At the start of the game Young appeared surprised by Husiev’s attacking intent (he shouldn’t have been, based upon Ukraine’s two games), and Ashley Cole moved out wider and allowed too much space between himself and Joleon Lescott. When Young adjusted his positioning and played deeper, however, Husiev was no longer a threat. Blokhin later tried to get Husiev into more space by moving him to the right of midfield.
It was crucial that England stopped Husiev, because they’ve looked vulnerable to crosses in this tournament, and Husiev was the main threat in that respect. The two wingers came inside, though Andriy Yarmolenko sometimes looked to receive long diagonals up against Cole.
On the other flank, Yevhen Konoplyanka stayed wide initially, then cut inside suddenly to have long-range shots. One tested Joe Hart, forcing him into an awkward save, but four were off target. England were probably happier with a winger coming inside rather than one charging down the outside and crossing, but they must be careful in that zone ahead of the back four, having conceded from that position against France.
England on ball
England were disappointing on the ball, with little invention from the midfield zone. Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker play flexibly and switch sides depending on where Gerrard ends up after attacking, but Gerrard tended to stay more to the right of the pitch in this game, having previously spent more time to the left – though this may have been unintentional.
Rooney found space in deep-lying positions, but England couldn’t get the ball to him via the midfielders, who were closed down quickly. Instead, England looked better when the defence hit ambitious balls forward, bypassing the midfield completely. Their best chance of the first half came after a long diagonal from John Terry to Young, followed by a cross that should have been headed in by Rooney.
Either side of half-time, it became a game of set-pieces. England built pressure with corners in the first half, and while they went ahead following a right-wing corner (Gerrard’s third right-wing assist of the tournament, which might hint at why he spent more time towards that side), they then became penned in by a succession of Ukraine corners.
In truth, the game never developed into a truly exciting spectacle. England were content with their 1-0 (in fact, with news from the other game, they would have topped the group with a draw) while Ukraine were disappointingly tame in front of their home crowd, needing a win to progress – though they probably would have rallied had Milevskiy’s deflected shot been given as a goal.
The substitutions changed little, with only one significant re-structuring by either coach. Blokhin introduced right-back Bohdan Butko for Milevskiy – on paper a very defensive change, but Blokhin moved Husiev forward and Yarmolenko inside, and Ukraine played in roughly the same system.
Hodgson called upon Theo Walcott, Andy Carroll and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who have all played previously in the tournament, to give a renewed attacking threat – but they completed five passes combined, and their introduction was irrelevant to the feel of the game.
4-4-1-1 versus 4-4-1-1, and two naturally reactive teams. As in England’s previous matches, set-pieces were crucial to England’s goalscoring, although they still don’t appear comfortable defending them at the other end. Still, England have their back four and two central midfielders sorted, and Hodgson has options in the other four positions, with players who offer different attributes and tactical variety. Regardless of how England fare in the knockout stage, Hodgson’s performance as coach has been quietly impressive.
Ukraine rarely played well in this tournament. Even their win against Sweden was down to brilliance from Shevchenko rather than great overall play, and Blokhin may regret that unnecessary half-time substitution against France. Still, the Shevchenko-inspired turnaround against Sweden will be remembered forever in Ukraine – and in the absence of a realistic chance of winning the competition, that was probably the best possible outcome.