England are subject to a bizarre kind of scrutiny in which it feels that anything that is not an epoch-definingly brilliant performance is condemned. In part that’s because of the tension between England as the mother of football and the failure to win a tournament for 50 years but it’s also because England only play a dozen games a year. If a club side put together a run of three narrow victories in which it had been the better side without being brilliant, it would be praised; even the very best sides only hit peak form in perhaps 10-20% of their games.
Portugal are above England in the world rankings so, even though there was no great fluency in the performance, there could be satisfaction both in the win and the fact that Portugal’s attacking threat was minimal even before the red card. Defending has been the weakness in this England side but here there was a solidity that they will need if they are to beat better sides.
THE ATTACKING SHAPE
England began with a diamond in midfield, with Wayne Rooney at its point and Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy as the two central strikers, but it was slightly more complex than that. Rooney kept pushing high with Vardy and Kane pulling wide, something that has two functions.
First of all, having a player arriving from deep in a central attacking position is hard to pick up, particularly as the two central defenders will naturally be trying to deal with the centre-forwards – something Raheem Sterling benefited from when he played behind Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge for Liverpool two seasons ago. But there is also a defensive function. "When you play with that system, you need the strikers to split,” Roy Hodgson said afterwards. “They need to defend the wide areas." That may not have been tremendously important against a defensive Portugal but against teams who attack through their full-backs it will be vital.
When England played a diamond away against Switzerland in their first qualifier, Rooney and Danny Welbeck had superb games blocking in Stefan Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodrigues, Switzerland’s two offensive full-backs. That’s the discipline they need to match.
Jamie Vardy had one of his poorer games, not getting a single shot away. That may be evidence of a failure of the shape, but the bigger factor was probably that he is at his best running in behind defences and that Portugal, by sitting so deep, especially after Bruno Alves had been sent off, simply presented no space for him to run into.
One of the reasons he was so effective for Leicester this season was that opponents, at least early in the season, looked to take the game to them. When they sat back, he was less dangerous. Perhaps in the group stage, that’s a problem England will face. Slovakia, certainly, will probably sit deep and look to play on the break but England’s capacity to counter will become increasingly important as the tournament goes on. That said, it seems odd that Vardy played so much wider than Kane; seven of his eight touches came out on the flank (and the one that didn’t was the kick-off). That seems a waste if it was policy rather than simply Vardy hunting space where he could find it.
THE MIDFIELD SHAPE
The three in the middle of midfield were an asymmetric triangle, with Dele Alli playing a little higher up the field than James Milner. This is part of the appeal of England’s 4-3-1-2 system: it is easily flexible. Eric Dier can drop in between the centre-backs to form a back three and liberate the full-backs. Rooney can push up to form a 4-3-3. Or Milner can drop back and make it a 4-2-3-1. If there was a criticism of them it’s that at times they perhaps got a little too narrow, exposing the full-backs as Portugal broke. That’s always the danger with the diamond and is one of the reasons the centre-forwards have to take action against the opposing full-backs. The goal came after a switch to a more orthodox 4-3-3 with Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana wide; as Hodgson noted, having the ability to flip between the two could be hugely advantageous and is unusual in England sides.
WHO PLAYS ALONGSIDE DIER?
There are three candidates for the second-most defensive slot in the midfield three. Jordan Henderson seemed to have it sewn up before his injury and, if fully fit, probably represents the all-round option, capable of working up and down and filling space but also a decent crosser of the ball. James Milner is the more prosaic option, defendable defensively but less incisive, while Jack Wilshere is the best passer but lacks the discipline of the other two.