#360view: Midfield minefield presents problem for Roy

James Piercy 12/06/2016
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Midfield trio: Alli, Rooney and Dier.

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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What they said: Post-match reaction from England vs. Russia

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Goalscorer: Vasili Berezutski.

England were left disappointed in Marseille on Saturday night after conceding in stoppage time to allow Russia to share the points from their opening Pool B encounter.

Sport360 rounds-up the best of the post-match reaction from the south of France.

Eric Dier, England goalscorer:

“It’s disappointing because we were so close to a win in our first game. I thought it would have been well deserved. Our emotions went from a high to a low pretty quickly, but we have more games to look forward to and have to pick ourselves up.

“It is one of the best moments I’ve had in football, a fantastic moment, and to celebrate with our fans who were fantastic around the stadium. I would have taken a win, though, with someone else scoring.

“I’ve seen lots of his [David Beckham’s] free-kicks. Ever since I was younger it’s something I’ve enjoyed doing and practised a lot.”

Roy Hodgson, England coach:

“I have the same emotions as the players. To say we are bitterly disappointed would be an understatement. We were that close to a deserved victory and to lose it with one minute of injury time remaining is a tough pill to swallow, but that happens in football.

When we analyse the game tomorrow there’ll be a lot of things we will want to take forward and hopefully we’ll be able to put the memory of this last-minute goal behind us.

I thought we were good for the first 45 minutes and the last 30 minutes of the second half. We weren’t very good for the first 15 minutes of the second half and allowed them to play too many long balls forward. For 15 minutes we didn’t establish the control we had, but we overcame that and re-established control.”

Joe Hart, England goalkeeper:

“It was a good performance, but fair play to Russia because they stayed in the game and got the goal. They stood the ball up, he has springs in his heels and has looped it into the corner.

“It is not tough to take positives, because we played well. We will build on it and get better, win more games.

“There are a lot of positives, and that is what we are going to have to draw on.”

England captain Wayne Rooney:

“We played some really good football. We were creating chances for 90 minutes, so we are disappointed because the performance we felt was worthy of three points.

“We knew Russia’s danger was the big man up front, if they were going to get the goal you knew that is where it was going to come. He is a big lad, and is going to win headers at some stage. Unfortunately for us it was in a dangerous position and they got the goal from it.

“We are disappointed we didn’t get three points, but we have to move on. It is one point and there are a lot of positives in the performance.”

Leonid Slutsky, Russia coach:

My players stuck at it until the end and they rescued a point, which is tricky to do. England dominated the match, but we were still able to contain them and their dangerous forwards.

We were playing against a 4-3-3 or even a diamond system, so we were prepared for those two different tactical alternatives – we were prepared to play against both systems. We focused on their movement.

As for their intensity, we tried to outdo them. That said, England are one of the quickest teams on the planet so I don’t know if we were able to succeed in what I’d planned.”

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Late equaliser denies England in opener

Sport360 staff 12/06/2016

England seemed to be heading for victory when midfielder Eric Dier fired in a 20 metre free kick past Russia’s veteran goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev.

But three minutes from the final whistle in the Group B match, Joe Hart and his defence took their eye off the ball. Berezutski rose to meet a cross and sent a looping header into the net.

England players walked off disconsolate while there was more violence in the Stade Velodrome as fans left, adding to the 31 injured in street battles in the Marseille port district earlier.

England had to battle with the injury-depleted Russians to get ahead in the 77th minute however.

England won a free kick on the edge of the area when Russian left-back Georgi Shchennikov impeded Spurs midfielder Dele Alli.

After Harry Kane’s dummy run, Gary Cahill created a hole in the defensive wall and Dier stepped up to fire into the top corner of the net.

It was England’s first free-kick goal in a major tournament since David Beckham scored against Ecuador in 2006.

Hodgson must now be concerned about England’s wastefulness however.

The Young Lions’ zest, energy and superior footwork helped created a succession of opportunities in a one-sided opening half that had the Russians struggling to keep pace.

Adam Lallana wasted their best chance when he drilled wide of Akinfeev’s far post just before the half hour.

It looked promising for England when Lallana pounced on Kane’s flicked header to send Sterling through the middle, but Igor Smolnikov slid in to clear the danger.

Russia, looking slow in comparison, were bamboozled by Alli’s footwork deep on the right. He set up Rooney, who flicked the ball up to fire a volley that Akinfeev punched to safety eight minutes before the interval.

It brought raucous applause from England’s support but, immediately afterwards, even louder calls for the ball to hit the back of the net.

Russia resumed in more positive fashion after the interval and when Aleksandr Kokorin broke free on the right to set up Artem Dzyuba, it took Raheem Sterling to rush in and clear the danger.

England’s first-half efforts appeared to have taken a toll, Russia steadily gaining some momentum.

An awkward defensive header from Dier at a Russian corner forced Joe Hart into his best save of the match. Just after the hour Fedor Smolov forced the goalkeeper into action with an ambitious 20-yard drive that crept dangerously wide.

Rooney, however, had fans up out their seats on 71 minutes when he pounced on a poor clearance from a Walker cross to force Akinfeev into a great save that came off the crossbar.

Lallana pounced on the follow-up to fire across the bows, but he was already offside.

England’s best chance looked most likely to come from a dead ball situation and when Alli tumbled over Shchennikov, it gave them a golden opportunity.

But Russia refused to throw in the towel and when they broke clear on the left, Berezutski did well to rise above Danny Rose to leave Hart, and England stunned.

#360FANS VIEW

– LENAR SAYFULLIN, RUSSIA

In the first-half we could not play our game and England had a few good chances to score and were dominating. I was still hoping we would have one or two chances to score and at least salvage a point from the game. Second-half England were faster and put pressure on our defenders. Physically they were much better and won a lot of challenges with very intense football. Our goalkeeper Akinfeev made some really great saves but the free-kick from Dier was unstoppable. We didn’t give up though and were rewarded with a last-gasp goal. I think all the players did a great job against England. We could not create many chances and England dominated but people will only remember the final score which was 1-1, bringing a lot of satisfaction to us Russian fans.

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