We imagined it would happen, we understood it was really the only way a limited team could progress, but nonetheless to see it in action in Donetsk momentarily took the breath away. Playing two banks of four defending so deep they needed an aqualung, with one of two forwards doubling as a emergency second full-back, with just one man left isolated and alone up front expected to cling on for all he was worth to any hacked and hoicked clearances that might land in his general vicinity, yes, England had indeed transformed themselves into the Chelsea of the Euros.
And why not? Somehow, even if much of it was observed between the fingers, It worked against France. It may not have been as aesthetic as the Spanish, or as electrifying as the Russians, but England looked effective, efficient, working hard as a collective. There was something noble about the persistence of their rearguard. Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard were relentless in midfield, Joe Hart - one fumble aside - was alert and persuasive between the posts, John Terry and Joleon Lescott a resolute barrier. For once an England team that looked woefully short on paper performed better on the grass. Under Fabio Capello, any alchemy seemed to work inexorably in reverse.
Of course for the system Roy Hodgson so effectively pursued to work, you need to cede initiative to the opposition, stifle and hope to hurt them on the break or via a set piece. France were the ideal team to play with that system in mind. When the opposition does not attack, however, then you have a problem. Suddenly you are obliged to press forward in pursuit of advantage. And England have, so far at least, proven to be well short in that department. Danny Welbeck, Ashley Young and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could not be faulted for their work rate, but they caused the French little in the way of alarm. As for James Milner, well he did exactly as he was instructed, less of a winger than an additional full back.
So what happens when England play Sweden in Kiev this Friday? When up against a team who - on the evidence of their opening defeat to Ukraine - look short of forward ideas, how will England set out? The good news for Hodgson is that he need not change direction immediately. Sweden, without a point on the board after the first round of matches, as their coach has intimated, will need to be far more daring, far more aggressive, far more attack-oriented. Hodgson can set out with much the same game plan as he did against the French, knowing the Swedes have a more pressing requirement for goals.
It means Parker and Gerrard will again be required once more to act as the padlock. It is a risky strategy. If either succumbs to the injuries which have stalked them throughout their careers, there really is no-one else who can come in and do the same job to the same level of competence. Phil Jones is too inexperienced, Jordan Henderson too peripheral, Stewart Downing a wide man not a centrist. Hodgson's lack of resources would suddenly be horribly exposed.
But if he can organise a break-out win against Sweden, it would probably be sufficient to ensure qualification. Then Hodgson has intimated he has a Plan B. He is convinced the picture will change. At that point Wayne Rooney becomes available. Those that have wondered what happened to the Rooney who was once so electric in an England shirt will have been rather surprised by the picture Hodgson painted of the difference Rooney can make.
Rather than the scuffling, tetchy, stroppy parody of a player who stank out his last international tournament in an England shirt, Hodgson sees Rooney as his ace. Playing in the hole Danny Welbeck, he foresees a blossoming of inventiveness, a whole new ball game in the final third, a chance for England to redeem themselves from the growing assumption that they are the tournament's creative black hole.
It might appear fanciful, but there is no doubt Rooney's cavalry-like arrival could change the dynamic. With Parker and Gerrard holding, he could play in the middle behind Welbeck with Theo Walcott on his right and Ashley Young on his left. Apart from being a much more suitable position for a man of his skills than the lone striker role which so often proves frustrating for him, it releases Young to a position where he can do real damage, cutting inside ahead of the full back, or tearing to the by-line to provide a switchback. If nothing else, the pace of such a front four would be enough to worry most of the defences in the tournament.
Sure, it is fanciful. Sure, it is a formation as likely to backfire as explode. But if Hodgson's workmanlike organisation can put his team into a position to chance it, you never know, England might just turn up at this football fiesta after all.
- Sports & Recreation