As against Russia, Roy Hodgson opted for a 4-3-3, presumably for two reasons. Firstly, against a team that sits deep, it makes sense to spread the play as much as possible and having players starting from wide areas is a way of achieving that. And, secondly, playing two central strikers plays into the hands of a back three. Play one central striker and there is a marker, a spare man and an extra spare man, which inevitably means the team playing the lone striker can over-man elsewhere.
With Wales’s wing-backs pushed back – something emphasised in the second half as Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford came on with a clear brief to sit in the corners behind the wing-backs, forcing them to defend – England’s full-backs rampaged down the flanks. The result was that Wales offered barely anything as an attacking threat. Perhaps England might have been better served drawing them out, but Hodgson’s approach essentially meant it was attack against defence with lots of balls into the box.
Had it not been for Gareth Bale’s free-kick and Joe Hart’s error, it could easily have looked like a comfortable win. England did, after all, have 20 shots to Wales’s eight.
Given what happened in the second half after Daniel Sturridge and Jamie Vardy came on, there will be calls for both to play from now on with a switch to a diamond. Hodgson, though, seems to have accepted England’s limitations and to be conditioning his approach to the opposition. The 4-3-3 is his solution against teams who sit deep; the diamond may come later.
RAHEEM STERLING AND THE LEFT-SIDED PROBLEM
There’s no easy way to put it: Raheem Sterling had a dreadful game. He had one shot; it was off target. He completed just 66.7% of his passes. He was dispossessed twice and didn’t complete a single successful dribble. It seems all but inconceivable he will start against Slovakia.
That leaves Hodgson with a problem. The injury to Danny Welbeck and his decision not to take Andros Townsend to France means there is no natural replacement on the left. If the 4-3-3 is retained, that may mean playing a forward wide on the left – perhaps Vardy or more likely Rashford, who regularly played on the flank for United at junior level – and retaining the same midfield. Or it could mean Rooney pushing onto the left where he played in the friendly win over Australia.
WEARY SPURS PLAYERS
Dele Alli ended up setting up Daniel Sturridge for the winner with a superb flick, but he was not at his best, looking leggy. Harry Kane, too, has been far from his sharpest in this tournament. Perhaps that’s not entirely surprising: Tottenham played more games than any other Premier League side this season and Kane and Alli were both regulars.
Kane played 50 matches for Spurs and Alli 46: it’s only natural that their level should have dropped. Significantly Kyle Walker and Danny Rose, both of whom were rotated, both looked far fresher: Rose played 30 games and Walker 35. Walker, in fact, was probably England’s man of the match, posing a constant attacking threat and finding his man with seven crosses.
THE VARDY ISSUE
Jamie Vardy’s goal will convince many that he should never have been left out of the side but, apart from the goal, he did very little. He is at his most effective when there is space to run into and Wales, like Portugal in that final friendly, simply didn’t offer that. The goal came from Vardy’s only shot and in 45 minutes he touched the ball just seven times. He may still have a use later in the tournament against sides who take the game to England, and his predatory instincts mean he is a useful asset when his side are chasing a game, but his lack of involvement in team build-up against deep-lying defences means Hodgson should probably resist calls to play him from the start against Slovakia.
Hodgson responded to the widespread disbelief about Kane taking corners by having Rooney take them – replacing the Premier League’s top-scorer for this season with England’s all-time top scorer. It didn’t make a whole lot of difference. England had nine corners and countless free-kicks around the box and created just two clear chances from them.
That, perhaps, is the awkward truth that was neglected in the Kane furore – England simply don’t have a great dead-ball specialist. The contrast with Wales, for whom every dead ball around the box represents a major threat, was clear.