Danny Welbeck’s first half strike proved to be decisive as the Three Lions signed off with another morale boosting victory ahead of their opening Group D game with France on June 11th. And whilst it wasn’t a performance that tickled the imagination it provided an insight into the impact Hodgson has made during his short time in the dugout. A disciplined and organised display from England bore all the hallmarks of their managers preferred defensive strategy as he rung the changes for the visit of Marc Wilmots’ side who failed to qualify for the European Championships.
Most notably Danny Welbeck replaced Andy Carroll in the lone striker role whilst 18-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was given his first international start after making his debut as a substitute last week against Norway. With seven alterations to the starting lineup it was no surprise that England lacked cohesion in the opening stages as the visitors seized control of the game and much like the sluggish ending in Oslo seven days ago Hodgson’s men struggled to get going in the early exchanges.
Inevitably all eyes were focused on Chelsea’s latest acquisition Eden Hazard as he gave supporters a taster of that they can expect at Stamford Bridge next season. But for all the space he and his teammates were afforded they failed to suitably test Joe Hart in the England goal. Naturally their inability to break down the hosts would come back to haunt them as the Three Lions sprung into life 10 minutes before the break to snatch the lead courtesy of Welbeck first goal for his country.
Despite having not played for Manchester United in around five weeks the 21-year-old justified his selection ahead of Carroll precisely beating the Belgian offside trap to latch onto Ashley Young’s exquisite defence splitting pass and calmly lift the ball over the onrushing Simon Mignolet. The ascendency was now in England’s possession as they ended the half on top and could have doubled their advantage just before the half time whistle only for Steven Gerrard to see two efforts blocked in quick succession by Timmy Simons and Guillaume Gillet.
Sadly for supporters that sparkle and tempo died out after the break despite a flurry of crosses into the Belgium penalty that amounted to nothing. Clear cut chances were at a premium for both sides although the visitors almost snatched a late equaliser when Gillet hammered a 25-yard screamer off Harts post before the keeper got into a muddle in his own penalty area soon after that was almost punished by Romelu Lukaku. England also hit the woodwork in the dying embers as substitute Jermaine Defoe saw his effort agonisingly come back of the upright just minutes after entering the fray before Jan Vertonghen wasted a glorious chance to level the contest heading over the bar from six yards.
On reflection it was another tactical triumph for Hodgson who’s moulded England into a organised unit just a month after being appointed as Fabio Capello’s successor. His focus on staying disciplined off the ball has benefitted the national side as they learn how to soak up pressure during games and use it to their advantage when an attacking opportunity arises. Two wins and two clean sheets pays testament to his ability as a defensive coach and will certainly benefit the Three Lions as they head to Poland and Ukraine aiming to restore some tournament pride that has been in short supply over the years. However injury worries over Gary Cahill, Joleon Lescott and captain Gerrard will have him sweating after losing Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry in the past week. Things never run smoothly for England do they?