Perhaps the most eye-catching name in Sam Allardyce’s first England squad was West Ham’s Michail Antonio, called up to the national squad for the first time. Luke Shaw returns after injury, while Danny Drinkwater, Theo Walcott and Phil Jagielka were all included after missing the Euros. Jack Wilshere and Ross Barkley were the two notable absentees, while Southampton’s Alex McCarthy replaced the injured Fraser Forster as a back-up goalkeeper to Joe Hart, who has been named in the starting lineup. The England XI named by Allardyce on Friday night was Hart, Walker, Cahill,Stones, Rose, Dier, Henderson, Lallana, Rooney, Sterling, Kane.
The Slovakia coach Jan Kozak left out the experienced Jan Mucha, Miroslav Stoch, Vladimir Weiss and Stanislav Sestak – 223 caps between them – for his first squad after the Euros.
Both sides went out in the last 16 of the Euros, and neither can be said to have performed entirely satisfactorily. Slovakia beat Russia and drew with England but lost to Wales and exited with a limp display against Germany, while England sputtered in a nether-world of not-quite form before the brain freeze against Iceland.
The goalless draw between the sides in their final group game will be remembered as the game in which Roy Hodgson needlessly tinkered, making six changes from the team that had beaten Wales, and was punished with a goalless draw. There was a certain flatness about England in that game but they still had 29 shots to Slovakia’s two; on another day, they would have won the game comfortably.
THE ALLARDYCE APPROACH
Sam Allardyce is not an easy manager to second-guess, particularly not before his first team selection, but he dropped certain hints as to his line-up before naming it. Wayne Rooney, having been named as captain, will surely start as a number 10. That means the shape will probably be 4-2-3-1. Allardyce has spoken about the importance of width, and it’s probably the case that England would have found it easier to break down the massed defences they kept coming up against in the Euros with natural wide men. Raheem Sterling, in fine form for Manchester City, always seemed a certain starter, but who should play on the other flank was less clear.
There are also doubts over who should play at centre-forward. Harry Kane is the most complete striker available but after a sluggish Euros he is yet to recapture his best form. Jamie Vardy needs space behind a defence to attack – which Slovakia won’t offer unless they go behind, while the other option, Daniel Sturridge, has been a bit-part player for Liverpool this season, looking well short of his best form. The other big question was who should start alongside Eric Dier at the back of midfield, although with no Jack Wilshere in the squad, Jordan Henderson got the nod.
Slovakia are unlikely to change tactics much from the game in St Etienne. Jan Kozak is a coach at his most comfortable fielding a deep-lying back four with a lone striker – or, on occasion no striker at all. It was with a 4-6-0 that he pulled off probably the best result of his international management career with a victory over Spain in the qualifiers for the Euros and there’s little doubt that he would be quite happy with another draw. Marek Hamsik breaking forward to link up with the lone striker, either Michal Duris or Ondrej Duda, represents the main threat.
AN AVENUE ON THE RIGHT?
Something that England did well in the first half in St Etienne but then rather gave up on was trying to run at the Slovakia left-back, Tomas Hubocan. He is a converted central defender and lacks pace, which means he is potentially vulnerable against a skillful or quick winger – and if he can be lured forward, so much the better. Antonio could be an option on that side from the bench, using his pace to attack Hubocan on the diagonal, or Sterling could be deployed there to cut in on his left foot. Although Adam Lallana is an option, and didn’t play badly there in St Etienne, when there is such pace in the squad it would seem a waste not to use it to try to expose a clear deficiency.
England at 2.05 look decent value, even if Slovakia are unbeaten at home in their last five games. This may not be an England team to be trusted at the back (even with Allardyce’s help – although his 30 league games at Sunderland yielded just seven clean sheets last season – but given the likely lack of ambition of Kozak’s team, a win to nil seems entirely plausible, inflating the odds to 3.15. Or perhaps it’s better simply to Dutch some correct score bets on the assumption that if England win it will be low scoring: 1-0 is 6.40, 2-0 9.50 and 2-1 10.00.