After attention was inevitably drawn to the disgusting scenes on the streets of Marseille, it did eventually switch to events on the pitch at Stade Velodrome, where England were very….. well, England.
After using the pre-tournament friendlies to unsuccessfully try out Wayne Rooney behind Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy in a 4-4-2 diamond, Roy Hodgson opted for, what on paper, was a 4-3-3. However, as it turned out, it was too often more like a 4-5-1 for England that left Harry Kane isolated. The Spurs striker has become the poster boy for England in recent months and much was expected of him, but despite him often being isolated in this game, he was very poor against an extremely weak Russian side. His lack of pace was glaring on counter attacks and to compound his disappointing opening to this tournament, he was bizarrely taking corner kicks. Kane is good at sniffing out chances in the box and strong in the air, so why he was the one charged with delivering the ball into the box, quite badly as it turned out, only Roy Hodgson in his infinite wisdom can explain.
That really was this England performance; a bit odd. The over enthusiastic ITV pundits and commentators were largely excited by it and Roy Hodgson very positive and it would be churlish not to acknowledge that there were some positives, but the deficiencies were all too familiar. England largely controlled the game, as they should do against what was a very poor Russia team that offered little, but lacked a cutting edge. There was some nice build up play at times and even some nice movement outside the box, but once inside the box, things quickly became unravelled.
Raheem Sterling created problems down the left wing with his pace for around 55 minutes before becoming wasteful, as with Danny Rose down that side of the pitch, his performance level dropped off in the second half. The same could be said of Adam Lallana, he had a good first half, getting himself involved and into good positions, but as Liverpool fans know only too well, Lallana promises much but delivers little. So, what was supposed to be England’s front three dropped off in the second half, yet only Sterling was substituted and that was not until the 88th minute.
In the first half, England looked quite well balanced: both full-backs were a threat pushing forward and the midfield looked comfortable, but after the hour mark, England were losing their intensity and their performance was dropping off. Roy Hodgson decided against reacting to this though. When Eric Dier scored on 72 minutes, it only served to make Russia attack more on an England back line that had looked vulnerable against breaks.
This was the point where the England team on the pitch needed an intervention from the manager and where it became all too apparent that England lack the manager capable of leading a team to glory. The decision to replace Wayne Rooney with Jack Wilshere could be justified; Rooney is not a central midfielder, despite having a decent game there against a Russia midfield that backed off and allowed him all the time in the world and Wilshere has the ability to be incisive and change the tempo from there. The real issue was Kane struggling up front and his inability to exploit the space being left in behind the Russian defence. The game was crying out for the introduction of Jamie Vardy to play on the shoulder of the last man, it was how he made his mark at Leicester – counter attacking into space. Instead, Hodgson sat on his hands and opted to watch England try to counter attack with a tired front three, of which the increasingly wasteful Sterling was the only one with any pace. Hodgson had the pace of Vardy, Daniel Sturridge and Marcus Rashford to call on, but waited until 3 minutes from full-time to introduce James Milner for Sterling.
If England had a solid and well drilled defence, then sitting on a one goal lead to see out a game would be understandable, but this England back line is shaky and even a team as ineffective as Russia was able to penetrate it. From the striker being allowed to peel onto the diminutive Danny Rose, to Chris Smalling and Joe Hart watching the ball loop into the net, it was a poor goal to concede. Gareth Bale will be licking his lips at the prospect of running at them.
England can point to attacking performances in friendlies or against minnows in qualifiers all they want, tournaments are where it really counts. This is where the pressure intensifies and Hodgson’s in-built conservatism and indecision is exposed. England may not have the most talented side, but a manager with some balls and tactical nous could make them contenders, Hodgson needs to step out of his comfort zone if he wants to do anything of note this summer.