In a contest neither side could afford to lose, a goalless draw came as relatively little surprise. Such a situation suited the cautious, defensive-minded system England have become accustomed to under Roy Hodgson, but while Ukraine were largely nullified, their opponents' simplistic attacking strategy rarely threatened.
After a nervous opening 10 minutes, England settled into a disciplined, organised team shape. Previously derided for his insistence on two banks of four, Hodgson has now embraced a more modern 4-5-1/4-3-3 system, and in a purely defensive sense it worked nicely against Ukraine's midfield trio.
Rather than sitting back and defending extremely deep, as has frequently been the case under Hodgson, England were more proactive in their closing down. Jack Wilshere and Frank Lampard pressed Ukraine's central midfielders Edmar Halovsky and Taras Stepanenko, preventing either from turning, and instead forcing them into return passes to the centre-backs. There, Rickie Lambert was told to position himself close to the left-sided Oleksandr Kucher, the more technical Ukraine centre-back, which meant the free player was the cumbersome Yevhen Khacheridi, who played a succession of overhit passes in the vague direction of Ukraine's centre-forward Roman Zozulya, conceding possession cheaply.
There were some defensive problems, however. In the wide areas, Kyle Walker had difficulties against Yevhen Konoplyanka in the early stages, while England seemed particularly vulnerable to long, diagonal balls played into their left-back zone. Steven Gerrard made a couple of timely interceptions, but in this holding position he has a tendency to charge forward suddenly to close down midfielders, when his centre-backs would probably appreciate more protection.
With the ball England were poor. Hodgson is not concerned about dominating possession, and his plan was clearly to play on the counterattack – which often means attempting an incisive ball rather than playing the safe pass. That doesn't explain England's sloppiness, however, and the majority of turnovers occurred when Ukraine had numbers behind the ball, so was hardly evidence of a direct approach.
Without Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck up front, and with James Milner's defensive capabilities needed on the left considering Ukraine attacked dangerously down that flank during these sides' Euro 2012 contest, it made sense for England to base their attacking strategy around Theo Walcott's pace – especially because he was playing against Vyacheslav Shevchuk, a 34-year-old left-back.
But the problem with basing the attacking plan around Walcott is that playing on the break is about decision-making as much as pace. It often comes down to a couple of moments in a game, where players must choose the correct pass at the correct time, and with England unable to get Walcott behind the defence – where his finishing is generally very good – his choices when dribbling forward were frequently poor. Ukraine were clearly particularly scared of his pace, summed up by a couple of extremely cynical fouls.
Hodgson didn't attempt to change things significantly from the bench – Wilshere was withdrawn, possibly because of fitness concerns, with Ashley Young replacing him and James Milner moving to the centre, but England's overall shape was unchanged. Ukraine coach Mykhaylo Fomenko introduced Roman Bezus midway through the second half, and the Dynamo Kiev player played in behind Gerrard, finding space dangerously on a couple of occasions.
Ultimately, it was a classic England performance under Hodgson – a decent overall shape and good penalty box defending, but poor ball retention and attacking play. England are unlikely to become a ball-playing, possession-orientated side under this management – but if the plan is to play defensively and on the counter-attack, the decision-making at transitions must be considerably slicker.