Preparatory friendly victories over Norway and Belgium make it most evident that a defensive mentality will be key to any hopes that England harbour of success in Poland & Ukraine.In an era awash with an austere fixation with 4-2-3-1 tactical thinking and posturing, Roy Hodgson's England are aware that, in order to harbour any realistic ambitions this summer, the defence will be of paramount importance. Essentially, this summer's European Championships will be a war of attrition. As ever in tournament football, a culture of fear and pressure, nerves and anxiety will necessitate opponent-specific gameplans and styles; in a bid to be "hard to beat," ever so important in the International game, it is all too easy for teams to merely match up the system of their opponents. This is why it is ever so important that England distinguish and hone for themselves a niche, a unique advantage point, a strength. Devoid of Wayne Rooney and a classic ball-playing midfielder, it has become clear that such an edge belongs not in the attacking third. Instead, England now must rely and exploit, to the very best of their capabilities, upon the solid and absorbent defence which has morphed into being over the past twelve months.
Saturday evenings unspectacular victory at a Wembley Stadium so bedecked with enthusiasm and patriotic obedience showcased once more England's stoical resistance. Faced with a very confident, bright and inventive opponent in Belgium, a nation imbued currently with a Golden Generation of their own, England employed an uncharacteristic pragmatism. Even under the aegis of Fabio Capello, a manager supposedly cast in the very mould of conventional Italian pragmatism, England were never this cautious at home. However, after generation-upon-generation of conventional and normal, perhaps it is this strain of difference, this newfangled mentality of realism, which will be the antidote to our pain. Perhaps, this might just work.
No, this final send-off game before a major tournament was not the usual showcase of exuberance and conspicuous glitz, but it was a more functional dress-rehearsal. No, this final warm-up fixture did not evoke a lurching from the couch, fist clenched in pure passion, nor euphoric and belligerent cries of "... we're gonna win it!..." No, this final tune-up did not pertain the traditional hallmarks of attacking fluidity and creativity. However, this was a mockup drenched in realism and reality. This current blend of Belgian wunderkids, whirring with talents of the irresistible Eden Hazard, the incessant Dreis Mertens, the combative Marouane Fellaini, the roaming Moussa Dembele and the mercurial Jan Vertonghen, are superior to a number of teams taking up their places on the Euro 2012 starting grid. Thus, it was an idealistic game for Roy Hodgson to utilise.
As a fandom, we learned much more from a bruising, rigid victory over Belgium than we would have done from a luxurious, easy, barnstorming success over Trinidad & Tobago or San Marino. At the forefront of our learning was the realisation that, if we are to succeed, it will be a victory built around the fantastic defence which we possess. For all of their possession, for all of their probing, for all of their talent, Belgium looked rarely a force to trouble England. Rarely did they weave and intertwine their forward players into positions and contexts threatening to our defensive integrity. Simply, Belgium, one of the emerging forces of European football, could not break England down.
From this we, the England fans, can take great heart. For the first time in eons, England have a settled, calm and thoroughly excellent goal-keeper, in Joe Hart. In front of him unfurls a solid back four of Glen Johnson, Gary Cahill, John Terry and the awesome Ashely Cole. Formidable. Should our worst fears over the welfare of Cahill be realised, and should suspensions arise once out East, sitting upon the bench we have the monumental Joleon Lescott, a figure pivotal to Manchester City's recent glory, as well as Everton's Phil Jagielka; a duo who, once fused together in battle against not only Norway but Spain, the might of the Earth, looked remarkably cool and dependable.
Therefore, in light of recent solid and unsensational victories in Oslo and London, this national side has learned a great deal. With credence to the fixtures played against both Norway and Belgium, much has been debated and analysed. What has been learned most emphatically, and what has seemingly escaped the glare of media interest, is the fact that England have, over the rest of the field, one profound advantage. England possess and demonstrate, theoretically, the best defence in the competition.