Draw sheds light on England's problems
Have England fans ever been this overjoyed about a draw?
It doesn't matter that England, if it is as good as it wants to believe it is, should do far better than a 1-1 home draw with Ukraine. It also doesn't matter that the generally sleepy and perfunctory opening salvos in a long and largely uninteresting qualification tournament provided plenty of talking points -- namely, Steven Gerrard's late red card, Tom Cleverley's hat trick of wasted empty-netters and Frank Lampard converting a penalty for the second straight England game.
No. What matters -- if much could matter in September 2012 regarding the 2014 World Cup -- is that Roy Hodgson has plenty on his plate over the coming months, little of which he'll digest with enthusiasm.
For starters, his England squad is as Jekyll and Hyde as those his predecessors have labored to mold into an effective collective capable of contending beyond the quarterfinals of a major competition. There are players who can do as asked, some who can't curb natural tendencies in his simple system and others who aren't quite up to par. This is England, 2006. No, 2008. Sorry, 2010. My mistake, 2012.
Accounting for injuries to the likes of Wayne Rooney, John Terry and Ashley Cole, the first half showcased Hodgson's apparent "Plan A" of attack: two sagely Three Lions misfits in Gerrard and Lampard anchoring midfield and the competent utility of James Milner on the flank. Around them and through them, everything largely ran, aided by Jermain Defoe's industry and abetted by a pair of energetic "next-wavers" in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Cleverley.
That England's largest threats came from right back Glen Johnson, equally comfortable overlapping Milner or cutting infield to cross and shoot, summed up the futility. Yes, Cleverley and late sub Danny Welbeck both hit the post and yes, Defoe had a fine first-half strike disallowed for a debatable flailing elbow against Andriy Yarmolenko. But the failure to convert simple chances is often the difference between deep cup runs and early flights home. That it all happened in one of roughly three million more qualifying games over the next 18 months is Hodgson's largest saving grace.
What undid England? Simplicity. While Gerrard and Lampard broke from Roy's script and giddily poured forward on every possession, the visitors simply absorbed pressure and broke with speed against a leaden-footed back line. (Sorry, Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka. Speed is not part of your repertoire.) Ukraine came close several times with uncomplicated tactics: raking, Gerrard-esque diagonal passes to Yarmolenko or Evgeni Konoplienka in space that pulled defenders out of position and created room for runners to come from deep in pursuit of any cross.
Konoplienka's first-half goal, a sublime bit of solo skill, came from such exploitation of room. After Lescott's soft giveaway and Anatoliy Tymoschuk's quick infield pass, the winger shrugged off Gerrard's presence, cut onto his right foot and curled a sweet long-range strike past Joe Hart and into the top corner. An unstoppable, one-in-a-million strike, but one that magnified England's difficulties in controlling territory and containing just a couple of truly menacing opponents on either flank. (Twitter jokes about "Oh, Andrei Shevchenko would have buried that" were not misplaced, such was striker Roman Zozulya's inconsequential play.)
The second half brought late pressure that showed Hodgson's "Plan B," in which the bench is emptied of speedy, younger forwards and caution is chucked into a stiff breeze. Daniel Sturridge provided a wide threat that Oxlade-Chamberlain couldn't locate, while Danny Welbeck's persistence eventually won the penalty from which Frank Lampard equalized.
All in all, a dispiriting evening, but one that won't trouble too many people until it's happening in Rio de Janeiro, Porto Alegre and Fortaleza two summers from now and causing legions of inebriated, traveling fans to cut short their vacations.
England, like all teams vying for a spot in the next World Cup, is not without problems in need of attention. It's also not lacking for time in which to address them.