England in the group stage – The highs and lows
Roy Hodgson has displayed an admirable lack of fear leading up to this tournament. However, his brave decisions have yielded mixed results.
Hodgson’s bravery began with his selection of the 23 man squad. England managers follow a rather frustrating pattern when it comes to international tournaments, choosing experienced, ‘big names’ rather than in form players. Hodgson has bucked that trend; the inclusion of Marcus Rashford raised a few eyebrows, yet his inclusion seems to be justified following his impressive performance against Wales, which helped England snatch victory in the dying minutes. England have a squad with an abundance of attacking players to choose from, an element Hodgson sees as key to an potential success in the tournament. It was this array of attacking talent which finally saw England triumph over Wales, having the luxury of bringing Sturridge and Vardy off the bench to replace the faltering Kane and Sterling.
Hodgson also showed that he is not afraid to drop big name, a trait previous England managers painfully lacked. This season’s Golden Boot winner, Harry Kane, was dropped to the bench after failing to performance against both Russia and our Welsh counterparts. In previous tournaments England have stuck with their tried and trusted, even if it was obvious that it wasn’t working. This doesn’t seem to be the case with Hodgson; Kane underperformed and consequently lost his place in the starting 11.
The absence of the so-called ‘golden generation’ within the national side may just prove to be a blessing in disguise. Players such as Gerrard, Lampard and Cole have recently retired, meaning that the team selection is no longer a formality. England’s new breed have to fight for their places, to prove their worth, and this has instilled a hunger and desire to win in these players which now starts at the training ground. The mentality appears to be shifting.
However, Hodgson took his squad selection experiment one step too far in England’s game against Slovakia, naming six changes from the team that started against Wales. Removing key players such as Rooney and Walker, who epitomised everything positive from the opening two games, disrupted the rhythm and harmony that was running through the team. Several of these changes were justified, Kane and Sterling were faltering and it could be argued that Dele Alli looked fatigued. Yet six changes proved too many, creating a discontinuity within the team that they would have been keen to avoid days before the knockout stages of the competition.
England appeared to be growing nicely into the tournament. Dominating Russia in all but the 92nd minute, beating Wales (again, in the 92nd minute) and comfortably besting Slovakia in every aspect without applying the finishing touch. The Welsh results highlighted that it was our performance in front of goal that inhibited England from topping the group. England lacked finesse when it came to finishing off countless opportunities, opting for power over placement. Lallana, who has been a stand out player for England, highlighted our inefficiencies, squandering several clear cut chances. England may have won the battle, but Wales won the war.
It must be noted that the introduction of third place qualifiers has had a negative effect on the quality of football played throughout the group stage. Teams seem content to sit behind the ball and defend, comfortable with the knowledge that three draws may be enough to see them safely through to the knockout stages. England were easily the best team within their group, the other teams knew this, and as a result England suffered from the negative tactics of their opposition and the quality of football somewhat stagnated.
Despite the disappointments of the group stage, England are through and play the runner-up of Group F. Teams will now have to attempt to win rather than not lose to make significant progress in the tournament. Who knows what will happen when both teams come out to play.