Roy Hodgson's men never looked like scoring but somehow they kept their World Cup campaign on track
Maybe Roy Hodgson really is a cagily minded international tactical maestro after all. Or perhaps he is simply allowed to get lucky now and then.
Either way, England are unarguably in a better place to qualify for the World Cup than they were before this ragged and error-strewn 0-0 draw in Kiev. Against this they will at some stage have to actually beat one of the stronger teams in Group H, which at the end of 90 minutes in which England never came close to imposing themselves on unexceptional opponents looks like a task to be approached in hope rather than expectation. Hodgson had called this "a cup final" in the pre-match build-up. If so, it is one he set out to draw.
With this in mind it is tempting – for the first time perhaps in his 18 months in charge – to cast a censorious eye over Hodgson's approach to a qualifier where victory would have all but assured England's place at the World Cup. And yet at the end of this match the overriding feeling was that, really, Greg Dyke needn't have bothered. Here England stated the case for declining standards far more eloquently in a match that showcased not just the usual technical failings but a degree of drift that has little to do with whether the manager selects James Milner or Tom Cleverley.
The overriding impression was of a deeply familiar set of failings. England our England: frantic, wasteful in possession, but now with the added ingredient of attacking impotence, having managed just one shot on target all match in the shape of Steven Gerrard's third-minute long-ranger. In the end what saved England from Ukraine was Ukraine, who lacked the craft to create anything more than a series of diffuse alarms around England's goal. If Ukraine never managed, as Italy did here last summer, to make England look like a team attempting to communicate in some kind of outmoded sporting dialect, the football equivalent of Old Norse, then they played with enough urgency in the first half to stretch repeatedly an England team still condemned to treat the ball like a hand grenade with a loose pin.
From the start there was a relentless crackle of noise around this steeply banked concrete enormo-drome, a fittingly epic stage for what was a huge occasion for Hodgson personally. England's manager has been rather coddled to date. Euro 2012 was essentially a free pass, since when discussion around England has tended to pick away not at team or tactics but at the scarcity of high-quality English players available for selection. Hodgson has been able to operate behind this veil, bothered only by some distant grumblings at a general lack of fine-stitch embroidery in England's football.
Even here, faced with a qualifying match that even his pre-excused England had the players to win, Hodgson had mitigation. What could he have done differently, he asked afterwards, with his three best strikers missing? And for now acceptance of England's current state of decline, plus the succour of a point away from home however uninspired, seem likely to save England's manager from any deeper scrutiny of his approach. Never mind that England's problems in Kiev were not so much a function of their attack, but more to do with a midfield that failed to keep the ball and a lack of any sense of a wider pattern to their play. Plus, for all the missing personnel, Rickie Lambert had a more coherent game here than a tetchy and peripheral Wayne Rooney against Italy last year.
The presence of Jack Wilshere, the one significant change in the squad from that match, was at least an indication of the kind of textural change Hodgson might like to bring about. Here, though, Wilshere looked lost, repeatedly giving the ball away before being replaced on 67 minutes, and finding himself outmuscled too often by an athletic Ukraine midfield. If it is possible to make an excuse, perhaps he would have been better stationed a little deeper, allowing England to play through him when they had the ball rather than asking him to nip about trying to play off the cuff in an area where England's possession is so often frantic rather than measured.
As it was the opening 20 minutes in Kiev resembled a mid-table, end of season Premier League muddle of a game. At times England were horrendous at the back. Roman Zozulya should have won a penalty after being tripped by Joe Hart in the opening minute, while England struggled to deal with the movement of Andriy Yarmolenko and the close control of Yevhen Konoplyanka.
In the middle of which there was room to be disappointed with Hodgson's only major selection decision of the night, the presence of Milner on the left. Milner has been greatly praised for his unceasing vegetable motion, but in this, as in all things, it is as much a matter of quality as quantity and the perpetual motion man was nowhere to be seen as Artem Fedetskiy twice thrust forward into England's penalty area.
In many ways Milner seems to stand as an unexpectedly central presence in this England team, straddling the fault lines that define Hodgson's narrow range of tactical options. And yet for all the occasional late alarms in Kiev, Hodgson might point to the fact that England have still never lost an away game in which Milner has started. They gained a point here that promised progress if not exactly progression. For now that will just have to be enough.