FAILURE TO SCORE
The reaction to England’s 0-0 draw against Slovakia was baffling – and suggested that despite everything that has been said about diminished expectations, a strong streak of arrogance remains in the culture of the English game.
This is a Slovakia side that beat Spain in qualifying, that recently beat Germany in a friendly. They are more than the sum of their parts, a dogged, defensively resolute side. They are hard to break down. England dominated possession against them, had 29 shots to four, but they couldn’t score. Obviously it would be better if they had. Obviously it’s concerning that against Russia and Wales as well there was a failure to turn domination into goals.
Obviously it would be better if England were more precise, if they had a magician who could unlock a tight defence. But in terms of the latter stages of the tournament it’s also largely irrelevant. Teams with realistic hopes of winning simply won’t play as Slovakia did.
Goals have been a general problem in this tournament: France, Germany, Italy and Portugal have all struggled to convert possession. When a team sits deep against you and packs men behind the ball, it is hard to score and the nature of modern international football with its bloated tournaments dictates that a lot of games are like that.
Top club sides tend to find a way through, but top club sides have time to work on their attacking structures. They are slicker, sharper, smarter. They know instinctively where their team-mates will be moving because they practice together every day for weeks. Every pass in a move is a fraction quicker, and those fractions add up to something significant when it comes to resetting a defence.
LEAVING OUT ROONEY
Did Roy Hodgson need to makes six changes? Probably not and it may be that England would have been more fluent had he made fewer. On the other hand, the two first-choice full-backs have had a rest – and full-back is probably the most wearing position in this system, something seen in how often Mauricio Pochettino rotated that position during the season.
Jordan Henderson and Jack Wilshere have both played, Henderson rather more convincingly than Wilshere, and one of them is likely to have to come into that midfield three against better teams. It would have been better, of course if England had topped the group, playing a third-placed side next and then probably Portugal or Belgium after that. But Hungary or Iceland (probably) in the next round followed by France isn’t so much worse.
After 17 minutes, Jamie Vardy ran in behind the Slovakia defence and, thanks to hesitation from the goalkeeper Matus Kozacik got the sort of one-on-one chance he’s been gobbling up all season. On this occasion he hit his shot straight at the keeper, but the more significant aspect was the fact that that was the only real chance he had.
Slovakia’s defence sat deep, denied him space and that sort of opportunity simply didn’t present itself. That was predictable and perhaps an argument not to have started him – it also vindicated the previous decisions not to start him – but Hodgson possibly reasoned his predatory instincts in the box made him worth selecting anyway.
Against better more proactive sides than England have faced in the group, that space should start to emerge and he will be more effective.
Having Harry Kane take corners provoked howls of outrage and, while it may have seemed odd that the Premier League’s top-scorer last season was not in the box it also highlighted England’s deficiencies in that area. There simply isn’t a set-piece specialist in their squad, which has been a prime reason behind the failure to take advantage of territorial domination. England have had 26 corners in the Euros so far and, one Chris Smalling header against Wales aside, haven’t looked like scoring from any of them.
In the two years since the World Cup, England have played 13 competitive fixtures. In one half of one of those, away against Switzerland in the first qualifier, England faced a side who attacked them. In that second half in Basel, England were excellent, calmly picking off the Swiss on the break to win 2-0.
That was 21 months ago and only four of the side that started that game started against Slovakia, so it’s relevance to what happens next is limited. But in theory at least, given their pace in forward areas, England should be good on the counter. The bigger question is whether they’re defensively good enough to withstand a team that comes at them. The latter stages of the Russia game offered cause for concern and so did the sloppiness that gifted Slovakia two half-chances.