I think I may have been one of the few not that impressed with England’s performance against Russia. ITV were ready to release a DVD box set of the game, whilst pundits got themselves hot under the collar with Roy Hodgson’s side. Although England started the game well, things quickly dropped off in the second half and they lacked any cutting edge. To compound a performance that rapidly lost energy, the substitutions, or lack of them, from Hodgson were extremely poor. In contrast, the performance against Wales was one that was okay first half, but with positive half-time substitutions, improved second half with more cutting edge and brought the victory it deserved.
Aside from England’s shaky back four, which will not have had their confidence boosted by Joe Hart’s howler on the Gareth Bale free kick, the balance of the midfield does not look right to me. Wayne Rooney and Dele Alli are trying to influence the game in the same areas, with the youngster struggling to impact this tournament the same way he has the Premier League for Tottenham. The front line has also failed to click effectively; Raheem started well against Russia, but his output dropped off second half and he was poor against Wales. Harry Kane was ineffective in both opening games and looked a shadow of the striker who finished top of the Premier League goals charts. Daniel Sturridge and Jamie Vardy provided real difference against Wales and showed the threat and invention lacking in England’s attack in the 135 minutes prior to their introduction to proceedings.
Making effective substitutions are all well and good, but the key is to get things right before the match, rather than chase it in-play. That was the task facing Roy Hodgson before the final group game; could he make the necessary changes and get the balance right in order for England to despatch Slovakia?
Well, Hodgson made a surprising six changes: opting to switch both full-backs, which does make sense given that the full-backs are important in this system and expend an awful lot of energy. Those were two changes that didn’t weaken England as there’s little between Ryan Bertrand and Danny Rose and I would argue that Nathaniel Clyne is a superior right-back to Kyle Walker. Though Bertrand struggled at times, Clyne was excellent, forcing Slovakia to make changes on that side of the pitch.
The attacking changes spoke for themselves after Sturridge and Vardy did so well against Wales, they deserved to replace Sterling and Kane. What was fascinating was some of the outrage at Rooney and Alli having their spots taken by Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson. The midfield hadn’t looked balanced and playing two orthodox central midfielders in there, rather than an attacking midfielder and a striker, was a viable decision and the midfield looked a more fluid and cohesive unit. Wilshere started the game well, but became too indulgent in possession and quickly tired, whilst Henderson put in a strong performance, linking well with Clyne, though his set piece delivery was poor. Interestingly, the discussion for so long had been about whether or not Rooney deserved a place in the England team, yet after two decent performances there’s suddenly an outcry when he isn’t picked.
As it was, I felt the general performance against Slovakia was a much more accomplished one than the two previous, but again lacked the necessary cutting edge required in tournament football. They created chances, but for varying reasons, failed to put them away and as the match progressed, it became clear that against such a deep and high numbered block, it was going to be difficult to properly utilise Vardy. He is not a player that offers clever movement and with his one chance, he looked at the ball and smashed it, rather than calmly slot it near post. Sturridge, on the other hand, does offer movement and invention, but was played too wide, even though he was arguably England’s most creative attacking player on the night. Lallana showed once more that he is a good player and works hard, but is too much of a nearly player; he nearly scored, he nearly played a through ball, he nearly broke through the lines, but didn’t.
So, if England can play Sturridge closer to either Kane or Vardy and find the right player behind them, perhaps they will find that cutting edge. That, as well as the right blend and balance in midfield will be key to how well England can do in the knockout stages; for Roy Hodgson, the week ahead is a crucial one.