Roy Hodgson’s match selection defied conventional logic and, true to form, it was an England performance which ended up a little muddled.
Experimenting with a three-man midfield for the opening game of a tournament you’ve had two years to prepare for was questionable. Especially when two-thirds of that area consisted of a natural defender by trade and your nation’s highest all-time goalscorer.
Admittedly, Eric Dier has been excellent for Tottenham as a defensive midfielder and fully deserved his place in the anchor role, but it still had the air of those age-old square pegs in round holes; a problem which has beset England managers since Sven Goran Eriksson’s reign.
Neither Wayne Rooney, Dier nor Dele Alli – with the latter duo also possessing zero tournament experience – play 4-3-3 at club level, yet were assigned with controlling and dictating a major international.
That all said, for approximately an hour, England were able to manipulate a leggy and limited Russia side, who it should be highlighted had lost their entire first-choice midfield to injury, and looked lost in possession, offering no coherent goalscoring threat.
But Alli grew tired, his minimal influence soon transforming his presence into an irrelevance; Rooney suffered in the new role of having to consistently track back before having to launch counterattacks, a position clearly designed to try and alleviate the distance he had to travel up and down the field; while Dier’s role as water carrier – in the city where Didier Deschamps defined that title more than 25 years ago – was always going to take its toll.
Rooney’s fatigue did lead to the introduction of Jack Wilshere, with the added intention of regaining possession in the middle of the park and there were some nice touches from the Arsenal man, but his match fitness is clearly not there and he offers precious defensive presence.
Hindsight, of course, dictates all of this criticism as for 91 minutes this was a solid tournament-opening win, a little rough around the edges but with flashes of optimism.
International football, though, has a knack of exposing a team and manager’s flaws, and it was becoming glaringly obvious in the 10 minutes before and after Dier’s opener, Hodgson’s midfield experiment was delivering mixed results.
The goal was brilliantly struck but was as unexpected as it was welcome; the 22-year-old having never taken a free-kick in his senior career.
Hodgson’s rejoice must have also been relief. For it also, initially, helped cover up the manager’s second major failing of not turning to his biggest strength away from the starting XI; his attacking options on the bench.
England – as it so came to pass – will not be a side who can defend their way to any success in this tournament. T
heir best attributes lie in the final third and on a night when Alli’s creativity and ability to find precise pockets of space at the end of the penalty area had deserted him, Harry Kane’s radar wasn’t properly calibrated and Raheem Sterling’s underwhelming conclusion to the Premier League season was carried forward, a change was there to be made.
Kane and Alli both completed 90 minutes while Sterling was sacrificed three minutes from the end for James Milner in a defensive move. At least one should have made way much earlier.
From a position of complete dominance, with some of your major attacking weapons misfiring, why were Jamie Vardy or Daniel Sturridge not deployed? A 2-0 lead is a far more manageable scoreline to defend with, in the context of having an inconsistent back-four.
Wales now await in Lens on Thursday and Hodgson may have a different plan, he may stick with the same XI, it’s almost impossible to tell because little of what eventually transpired in Marseille last night offered conclusive evidence of what would be best.
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