Connect in the back of the net

Any lessons England manager Roy Hodgson would have learned at Wembley on Tuesday night would have been diluted by the context in which the match with France was played; a friendly that was staged in defiance of the series of terrorist attacks that took place in Paris on Friday evening which accounted for 129 lives.

The football was secondary to the chance for England and France, two countries sharing similar values, to pay respect to the victims and stand together in mutual defiance.

After both sets of fans among the 71,000 capacity crowd joined together to sing La Marseillaise and both sets of players formed a circle for a poignant minutes silence, the football got underway underneath Wembley’s famous arch which was lit up in the colours of the Tricolore.

In company of the many thanking England for the solidarity and support was Bacary Sagna who admitted the squad had trouble concentrating over the weekend, “we struggled to focus and the intensity just wasn’t there” he said, while Arsenal centre-back Laurent Koscielny said Les Blues’ preparations had been largely overshadowed by the events on Friday night, claiming his team “lacked energy”.

Hodgson is wide enough to take that all into account when analysing England’s first victory over France since 1997 but still he would have been very pleased with the way his team, the youngest XI he has picked since taking charge, applied themselves on a difficult night.

19 year old Dele Alli, winning his fourth cap, led the way with a “faultless” performance in the words of his manager, which he marked with a fantastic goal, Raheem Sterling was constantly involved on the left and Eric Dier and Ross Barkley both produced impressive displays alongside Alli in midfield.

 

Efficient counter-attack

England operated well on the counter-attack and dealt with France’s threat with most of the night, only when Paul Pogba and Kingsley Coman were introduced at half-time did Didier Deschamps’ team look dangerous and even then the home side remained organised and difficult to break down. On the break width was constantly provided and England were cohesive and fluid going forward for the majority of the evening.

Largely contributing to that game-plan was the energy and willingness of full-backs Nathaniel Clyne and Kieran Gibbs to gallop forward and add numbers to attacks and it is the latter that would have particular satisfied to see impress.

He now has genuine competition for his left-back spot in the absence of the injured Luke Shaw in the form of Ryan Bertrand, who played the full 90 minutes of the defeat to Spain on Friday and now Gibbs who, despite being one of the elder statesmen in the squad at the age of 26, is a relative latecomer to the party.

A first cap came in a friendly with Hungary in 2010 at the age of 20 but the game with France gave Gibbs just his 10th cap. The Arsenal left-back has been unfortunate, making 22 squads across those five years but having to take a back-seat with Ashley Cole and Leighton Baines dominating the scene on the left-side of the defence, but Shaw’s double leg break opens a spot for either Gibbs or Bertrand to make their own in time for the trip to France next summer.

 

Fine performance

After Bertrand made his claim in Alicante on Friday, Gibbs made his at Wembley, keeping Hatem Ben Arfa quiet in the first-half before successfully dealing with Bayern Munich’s tricky Coman in the second.

Charged with the task of keeping a leash on two dangerous talents Gibbs also found the confidence to move forward when he could, in one instance beating Morgan Schneiderlin near the corner flag in the prelude to a shot from Harry Kane which narrowly flew wide of the post.

Getting forward was what he did to such great effect for Arsenal in the recent north London derby of course, getting on the end of a cross from Mesut Ozil just three minutes after coming on as a substitute for Joel Campbell.

Gibbs’s contribution salvaged a valuable point for Arsenal in a match where they were second to Tottenham’s assuredness for the majority and by bundling home Ozil’s cross after scampering in behind Kyle Walker, he would have reminded Arsene Wenger of what he can bring to this Arsenal side.

“Kieran gets in good positions,” Wenger said. “I had very limited offensive options on the bench but putting Kieran on gave me the option to put Sanchez on the other side”.

 

Losing the starting position

Those good positions haven’t been enough to earn Gibbs a single league start this season however, with his chances coming in the Champions League and League Cup having lost his place in Wenger’s first XI to Nacho Monreal.

Those matches would not have done much to sway Wenger’s view with defeats coming to Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiakos in Europe whilst a young, inexperienced side were emphatically beaten by Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup.

With Gibbs involved, Wenger would be entitled, particularly after the game at Hillsborough, to expect a more telling contribution from one of the more established and senior members of his squad.

Monreal meanwhile has been outstanding, building on 7-8 months of consistent form at left-back and Gibbs will now find the Spaniard extremely difficult to dislodge for the most important fixtures.

As Wenger mentioned though Gibbs’s attacking quality can provide him with another option going forward, particularly as a pacey, direct alternative on the right to permit Wenger to move Alexis Sanchez over to the right with Joel Campbell, enjoying his most sustained run in the Arsenal team, struggling for form.

 

Proud and touched

Watching on from the Wembley crowd on Tuesday Wenger would have been as proud and touched by England’s warming reception of his nation as anybody else, but he would have also joined Hodgson in being pleased with the performance of the 26 year-old at left-back.

Gibbs though will have to keep impressing both if he is to have the chance of boarding the plane to France next summer.

 

Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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