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Can England go all the way?

So far this tournament, England’s pragmatic approach to Euro 2012 has ensured qualification from a tough Group D. Roy Hodgson’s men will now face Italy in tonight’s quarter final fixture, but can they go all the way and win in the final?

You won’t see their first three games being eulogized at all, certainly not for their elegance and beauty. England’s possession and passing numbers will not be drooled over like those of the beloved Barcelona and their impressionists, Spain.

But two wins and a draw put Roy Hodgson’s men into the last eight. And, when you consider the soiled mess Hodgson inherited from Fabio Capello when he took over on May 1st and the problems he’s faced since, that’s no small achievement.

The key to England’s success so far is, without a doubt, the defensive approach taken by the side. The fact they’ve adopted a defence-first approach is no secret. After all, it’s a Hodgson staple.

The deep defensive line that Hodgson has adapted for England is fast becoming an England hallmark, as the sea of white shirts that greets every incoming attack surely makes for considerable frustration for their opponents.

England set out to concede as few goals as possible, and they don’t aspire to look pretty while doing it.

Graft is the key, and this was epitomized by Scott Parker’s crawling efforts to put in a tackle against Ukraine. Parker and Steven Gerrard have waged workmanlike war in midfield.The two centre backs, Joleon Lescott and John Terry, have sat deep allowing them to soak up the opposition’s attacks, whilst Joe Hart has been counted on to man the England goal.

Tackles upon tackles, Blocks upon blocks – It’s been clear to see the players’ commitment to the cause. However, this defensive mind-set doesn’t come without extensive training. A look at the shape of the England team whenever they are without possession sees the players lined up in a very obvious 4-4-2 formation. Any attacking permutations that see an England player out of place is immediately addressed by another player filling in for the empty slot.

Hodgson is famous for drilling the importance of defensive discipline into his players. It seems like it’s working so far.

Another feature of the Hodgson 4-4-2 is the amount of defensive work done from the wings, and to a certain extent, up front. Danny Welbeck will have won plenty of admirers with his selfless running and harassing off the ball this summer, while Wayne Rooney is known for his work rate as a forward. But the key to maintaining a sense of psychological control over proceedings is the amount of work that the midfielders do to ensure that the opposition doesn’t get to keep the ball too often. Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker have been wonderful ambassadors of this system. So too James Milner and Ashley Young, who have tracked back and put in their defensive shift out on the wings.

The England game against Sweden was an example of why sides playing a high tempo game do not achieve success in these tournaments; quite simply, tactics are thrown out the window for the sake of seeking goals, now against the lesser sides you can afford to try this and England scraped the win which could easily have been a loss. Yet the Premier League style of front to back by any means and the forsaking of defence in order to score is a reason why England and those sides who play the English way, do not achieve success internationally.

You cannot just attack and be successful, but you can defend and win, and in the past decade we have seen many different instances of defences winning Championships; Greece in 2004, Italy 2006, Inter Milan in 2010 and Chelsea in 2012, all won by a form of very deep and compact defending. Against the better sides, England will need to defend much smarter and much more compact. Could it work? Possibly, but for sides like England and managers like Hodgson, the purpose of defending is to not concede goals and this will be vital against the likes of Italy, Spain and Germany.

Hard work goes a long way, and in England’s case, their reward is steady Euro 2012 progress that will have even the most cynical fans in football contemplating an unlikely triumph.

Surely, the experienced players will use the pain of past disappointments at major tournaments as inspiration in the Euro 2012 quarter-final against Italy in Kiev. This could benefit the team greatly – let’s face it, they’ve had enough of them.

Finally, Hodgson’s management of public expectations and the media has been superb. Perhaps, in a perverse way, he was aided by the loss of several experienced players, including Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry, before a ball was even kicked in anger. That helped form the media and public perception that this was to be one of the least-talented England squads to ever have travelled to an international tournament.

But, through a combination of his preferred defensive style, a streak of pragmatic, low-scoring results, and an added ability to grind out results, Roy Hodgson has succeeded in keeping his countrymen’s expectations low so far. Keep succeeding, though, and he’ll see that this, as ever, is always the likeliest to change of all.

Suddenly Hodgson has an England team three games away from cleansing a nation’s tortured soul.The first, against Cesare Prandelli’s Italy, is tough but definitely winnable. The second, should they advance, will likely be against Germany—a familiar foe who so emphatically dispatched Capello’s team at the last World Cup.

But this England team seems unlikely to roll over so easily. Who knows, this England team might even have a game plan to frustrate Germany and go all the way to the final—especially if Wayne Rooney comes to life as we know he can.

Of course we need to win against Italy first, our toughest challenge yet, there’s no point getting carried away until the team is tested against the best teams in the competition. However, if the Three Lions do win in Ukraine,this evening, who knows how far their new-found confidence and belief can take them.

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England v Italy Match Preview

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