Same procedure as every tournament
Quarter finals? Check. Painful penalty shoot-out defeat? Check. Look technically inferior to most other teams? Check again. All in all, England's showing at Euro 2012 went pretty much as expected. There were a handful of encouraging elements this time around (albeit mainly off the pitch); most notably the widespread absence of delusional optimism among the English media about the team's chances, and an impressive personal showing from new coach Roy Hodgson. The football may have been dour, but Hodgson's refreshing honesty and eloquence in his public appearances was a stark contrast to many of his predecessors.
On the pitch, things started off well enough with a deserved and disciplined 1-1 draw against France, who had become something of a dark horse following a 21 game unbeaten run going into the tournament. In a sign of things to come, possession was sacrificed, but England looked defensively sound and occasionally dangerous on the counter attack.
A familiar foe waited in the second group game. Having looked to contain the technically superior French, could England break their shackles against a Swedish team that had repeatedly posed them problems in recent years? With Hodgson opting for Liverpool's Andy Carroll up front, who would triumph in the battle of the divine ponytails with Zlatan Ibrahimovic? It was first blood to the Geordie ponytail as he buried a fearsome header from skipper Steven Gerrard' fine cross. Ultimately, it was England's own sloppiness in defence that necessitated a more attacking approach. After conceding two in 10 minutes, Walcott equalised, before Manchester United youngster Danny Welbeck conjured a magnificently inventive finish to flick home the winner.
Last up in the group were co-hosts Ukraine. A largely unknown team, striking legend Andriy Shevchenko unfit, just a draw needed to qualify - no problem? Well, not quite. Despite taking the lead just after half-time through the returning Wayne Rooney- Gerrard again the provider - England largely struggled against a competent, but relatively harmless Ukraine team. The main talking point was, of course, the goal that never was for the hosts. While not a huge fan of overly involving technology in the game, this surely cannot be an overly difficult problem to solve.
France's surprise defeat to Sweden meant that England topped the group and avoided favourites Spain in the quarter finals. Whisperings surfaced and parallels with Greece in 2004 began to be drawn: could England grind their way through to the semi-finals? No. Following a promising opening 15 minutes against Italy, England retreated, waited, defended desperately at times and generally hoped that their luck would hold. And it almost did. As it was, defeat came in a familiar fashion, except this time we were largely spared the sob stories, the hard luck tales and the vitriol directed at 'cheating' foreigners.
England have now lost all but one of the penalty shoot-outs they have taken part in (six from seven), but in all honesty they were lucky to push Italy that far in Kiev. As against France in the opening group game, the Italians totally dominated possession, but unlike the French, they created chances with it and should really have been out of sight by the time 90 minutes were up, let alone 120. It has been said in some quarters that while England were defensive, they did at least look disciplined and organised, as though they were playing to a plan. I would argue that no plan could possibly have involved sitting so deep and conceding quite so much possession. If England were planning on playing on the counter attack, then they needed effective wide men. While Gerrard's delivery impressed, setting up three of his team's goals, Ashley Young and James Milner found a teammate with just three of a combined total of 29 crosses.
Euro 2012 seemed to herald a new dawn in media obsession with statistics, most notably possession and passing. It is, of course, no coincidence that these are the areas in which England struggled most. As Chelsea proved in the Champions League, these numbers can be misleading and while their importance has been overstated, the ability to keep the ball makes both defending and attacking easier. Given these technical deficiencies, instead of sitting back, it would be interesting to see how England would fair playing an aggressive, pressing game - a tactic which Portugal used with considerable success against Spain.
Rooney put in a pair of off-colour performances : Photo wikimedia/football.ua
Where do England go from here? With more time to work with his team, expect more signs of the disciplined shape that Hodgson is renowned for drilling into his teams. Rooney stank the place out in Ukraine and has not really had a good game in an England shirt in years. It will be interesting to see if Hodgson can coax the sort of performances out of him that he puts in for Manchester United on a semi-regular basis. Key to this may be a partnership with club colleague Danny Welbeck, who was one of the more encouraging performers in an England shirt. Elsewhere, Joe Hart looked calm and assured and should make the goalkeeping position his own for a long time to come, while Glen Johnson finally showed that there is life after Gary Neville after all.
Co-hosts of Euro 2012 Ukraine and Poland are both in England's qualifying group for the 2014 World Cup and will provide tricky if not daunting opposition. Expect England to make it through to Brazil in two years time, but don't expect the unexpected once the tournament begins.