First 5 minutes set the tone: Ukraine started much more quickly than England, as you’d expect to some extent given that they needed a win to stay in the tournament and had the crowd behind them. In fact, England barely made it out of their own half in the first 5-10 minutes, and we’re struggling even to pass the ball around the defence as Ukraine closed down high up the pitch and pressurised the ball.
The opening minutes also set the tone for a torrid evening for Milner. He wasn’t able to get into the game at all, even when assisted by Johnson on the overlap in rare moments of attacking intent. Strangely, it seemed a predetermined tactic to try to play balls out to Milner on the wing to compete with Selin; a tactic that failed all evening long as Selin won 7/8 of these aerial duels. On the rare occasions when Milner did get into a position to cross, he caused no problems for the Ukraine defence.
Diagonals, Cole and Young, Gusev forward
The opposite flank was where the action was occurring, as has been the case so often in this tournament. Gusev was pushing high up the pitch from his notional right back starting point, as he always does, and Ukraine were targeting him with long diagonal balls to test Cole and Young. The chalkboard below gives some idea of the prevalence of this tactic, but doesn’t display the passes which didn’t quite find Gusev as they went out of play or were picked off. Cole generally dealt with these passes well, but Young was much more uncertain, twice misjudging the ball and allowing it to bounce embarrassingly over his head to Gusev. Gusev completed more attacking third passes than all but two of the England team, and fired a shot just over the bar in the first half, such was his presence upfield.
Facing such an attack-minded wing back should have provided ample opportunity for a left winger to seize control of the space in behind Gusev, provide an out ball for England, stretch the play, and force Ukraine to adjust to this threat. Young didn’t really do this at all through the game, seemingly concerned more about his defensive responsibilities (which, as noted above, he was failing at) than taking advantage of the space offered to him. Towards the end of the first half he did cut inside twice, once to tee up Rooney to head wide and once to shoot himself, but apart from these attempts he was largely anonymous as an attacking threat.
Goal line humans don’t work as intended: England took the lead via a twice-deflected cross which was shovelled up in the air by Pyatov for Rooney to head in from all of six inches, but Ukraine all but equalised shortly thereafter. One of Devic’s few contributions was to pick the ball up after a Terry misjudgement and shoot, with the ball squirming underneath Hart, up and over the line before Terry could clear. With an official standing on the goal line 5 yards away, everybody expected a correct call – which wasn’t forthcoming. Human error, eh? If only the decision on goal line technology hadn’t been scheduled for a few days after the end of the tournament. There was what looked like an offside in the buildup to the goal, offering a convenient escape clause under the “two wrongs do make a right” defence, which shouldn’t be a defence at all.
A change is as good as a rest: Blokhin replaced Milevskiy with Butko – a rare event when replacing a centre forward with a right back can be labelled as an attacking substitution. Butko allowed Gusev to push up the wing, Yarmolenko to move in behind the striker, which was now Shevchenko after he had replaced Devic. This switch had little effect, as England knew a win (or even a draw) would take them through to the quarter finals as group winners and were content to protect what they had.
England seemed to treat this game as preparation for a likely quarter final against Spain, which eventually didn’t come to pass as France succumbed to Sweden. In truth, this England approach is more suited to sitting back and absorbing pressure from Spain’s toothless attack (as they showed against a similar one in France) than the more direct and physical approach taken by Italy, so in some sense finishing top of the group is a potential negative. They continue to be difficult to beat though, despite being less than easy on the eye.
Ukraine played much better than most people expected in this tournament, mainly due to the lack of competitive football in the run up which meant they were somewhat of an unknown quantity. They shouldn’t have surprised as much as they did, given that most of these players have healthy Champions League experience, and finishing third in the group, one point behind France, is a decent result.
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Chalkboards provided by the brilliant Stats Zone iPhone app.