- Euro 2012
Foundations laid for England to build
Roy Hodgson's measured reaction to England's 1-1 draw with France on Monday summed up the conclusion to be drawn from their opening Euro 2012 encounter, and you wouldn't expect anything less than a well-observed statement from the England manager.
"I've had three games," Hodgson said. "I am satisfied with those three games but you don't become a really good team in three matches and 10 training sessions. The French have gone 22 games unbeaten. They've not done that overnight. The longer we play together, the better we'll become too."
Simple stuff, but the use of the word "satisfied" conveyed just the right tone; not delighted, neither disappointed, but with enough gleaned to know where England stand, a better understanding of what their perceived strengths and weaknesses are and how to go about moving forward in a swift and productive manner.
Managing expectations has never been the forte of the English press, fans and even the players and coaching staff themselves, but there is a greater sense of perspective than has been displayed in previous years after Monday's result and Hodgson's evaluation leaves little doubt that he is not getting carried away.
The overriding signs after England's first test are that the side is well organised, as would be expected of any Roy Hodgson side, with each player knowing the boundaries of their respective roles to a well-drilled level.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's debut was cause for positivity. Many will point to his rawness and a lack of incision after initial flashes of enthusiasm to have a go when on the ball, but the signs were clearly there that he belongs on the international stage and is not fazed by occasion or hard work. He admitted his own frustration at an inability to take up some of the attacking positions he favours and excels at, but the key was his mature approach to what he had been tasked with doing.
"I think I did OK, but there's a lot more to come from me," he said after the game. "I think it was more important for me to do a good defensive job, as we all did." Reassuring words from an 18-year-old making only his third senior appearance.
Oxlade-Chamberlain's selection by Hodgson, a surprise to many, was an important indication that the long-term plan is one of progression, ambition on the ball, and belief in talent. The same can be said of Danny Welbeck's inclusion in the starting line-up, despite the fact both youngsters are, for now, being asked to focus on hard work and discipline.
Admittedly England were not overly adventurous in attack but there was enough there to suggest the team can gel going forward, James Milner's chance in the 15th minute being testament to that. The link-up play was promising in the early stages and the only major regret was that the French defensive partnership of Philippe Mexes and Adil Rami was not tested more. That was a weak point England could have exploited, and was highlighted clearly in the first 20 minutes.
England did drop deeper as the game went on and while they were defensively stable it will be an area addressed by Hodgson. However, the overall assessment can only be an encouraging one. Despite having three games as England boss, Hodgson's imprint is already emerging.
Statistics never lie and France's seven on-target attempts to England's one, as well as the 65:35 possession stakes tell a tale of French authority, but England worked hard off the ball and withstood France with a tactical maturity that has been missing in the past. It may be deemed negative by some - Ian Wright has had his say on this matter, but there is evidence from the skipper Steven Gerrard that the intention is not solely one of 'protect what we have'.
The foundations have been laid but not completed given Hodgson's short tenure to date; his has so far been a job of setting a constructive base from which to move forward. On that front, he has certainly created a more hopeful and optimistic feeling than the one recalled after England's entire group stage performance at the World Cup two years ago.
Sweden is a mildly kinder next fixture than Ukraine - as seen in Monday's 2-1 win for the co-hosts, but both will offer a stern test as Hodgson well knows. The chance to continue the progress will be made ever so slightly more accommodating by facing Sweden first, but there will be no complacency even if the supposedly 'toughest' group fixture is now out of the way.
"We can't deny on paper they [France] might be the hardest game, but I've got a lot of respect for Sweden and Ukraine," Hodgson said immediately after the France result. Ukraine in particular will not be underestimated in front of their home support.
For anybody doubting Hodgson's desire to see his England team move onto the front foot during those forthcoming games, perhaps his most apt words were the following: "This gives us a good platform," said the England boss. "I've got to be very proud of that performance. Maybe that final ball needs to improve and we were maybe a bit anxious in the final third. But there were good signs of a team wanting to do well."
Just the right balance of encouragement, confidence in the players, reserved praise and acknowledgement of the work that still remains to be done.