Sunday, 12 June 2016

So, How Did England Do Against Russia?

By Shane Thomas

This is something of an odd feeling for fans of the England men's team today. Not specifically having to reconcile a disappointing result, but that it dovetailed with a performance that was - if not as brilliant as some have claimed - on the encouraging side.

The key to much of England's attacking play came from their full-backs, with Kyle Walker in particular being a very effective out-ball. The Spurs man gave Georgi Schennikov a pretty miserable night (although Schennikov can claim a degree of restitution with his assist for the Russian equaliser).

The England centre-halves had a thorny task dealing with the 6ft 5in Artem Dzyuba, and there were occasions in the first-half when Dzyuba did to Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling, what James Haskell did to the Australian pack in England's rugby union win over the Wallabies earlier in the day. At 0-0, Eric Dier made one crucial intervention after Dzyuba had buffeted Smalling with ease.

Further forward, Wayne Rooney was s microcosm for much of England's overall display; accomplished in the first-half, before tiring and losing control in the second. I've long been skeptical of Rooney's place in this team, especially in midfield where I feel Roy Hodgson has preferable options. But credit where it's due, the captain had a strong opening 45 minutes. His passing had clear purpose, rather than being a meretricious impression of progenitors like Andrea Pirlo or Xabi Alonso. One particular crossfield pass to Harry Kane was delightful.

However - as Raphael Honigstein pointed out - Rooney supervision of the midfield was due in part to a Russian strategy that were so concerned with protecting their experienced but lumbering central defenders, that the team's starting position was far too deep, allowing Rooney too much time on the ball. Anyone who saw Wales' performance against Slovakia will note that the Welsh are unlikely to allow Rooney as much latitude, and a player like Jack Wilshere may be more effective[1].

What cost England in the end was profligacy. I advocated for Adam Lallana to make England's starting XI (ftr, I still am, I think he could prove crucial against an energetic Wales team), but his laxity in front of goal may make his position untenable.

The same goes for Raheem Sterling. Not for problems with his finishing, but his distribution in the final third. In the second-half, England's passing was generally poor as Russia pushed higher up the pitch, pressuring them into errors, with Sterling the worst of the bunch, often picking the wrong option, allowing Russia to counter. Once again, looking ahead to Thursday, if England concede possession in this manner, they could be sliced open on the break by Wales. But as Alex Neteherton pointed out - unless England switch formations - Sterling is the best available wide option that Hodgson has.

Of course, Sterling and Lallana's flaws will be offset if Harry Kane can show the best of himself. The last Premier League season had Kane showing plenty of effort, but a meagre goal return. This problem soon rectified itself over the 10 month long domestic campaign, as Kane ended up as the league's top scorer. However, international competitions are a small interstitial space where what comes before and after is irrelevant. Kane doesn't have time to play himself into form, and while I would keep him in the team, another lacklustre display, and Hodgson should look for alternatives - it's not as if he doesn't have other appealing options.

Given that Wales will likely have a block of seven players, throwing a blanket across their penalty box, Kane should be instructed to spend the bulk of his time near the goal. England will probably have most of the ball, but may need to remain patient in the face of Welsh obduracy. One feels this task is ideally suited to Daniel Sturridge, who doesn't always get involved in team play, but is the best finisher in the squad.

While England showed enough to indicate that they could have an impressive showing in France, worries persist: England had a worryingly jejune "I'm sure it'll be all right" approach, and looked devoid of ideas to adapt their game once Russia adapted theirs in the second-half;  Hodgson inexplicably didn't make any substitutions when his charges were tiring (even though it looked like Dier had bailed him out with his goal); and they failed to adequately shut the game down when they did take the lead.

As for Russia's goal, James Milner and Dele Alli didn't cover themselves in glory, and Joe Hart's starting position wasn't the best, but Danny Rose is blameless, as he was totally outmatched by Vasili Berezutski.

But ultimately, England failed to win a match in which they had more than enough opportunities to do so, leaving them in a position where their margin for error is closing. Fail to beat Wales, and the final group game against Slovakia becomes a nerve-shredding occasion.

[1] - Which is a moot point. There's no way Hodgson's dropping Rooney right now.

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