England have finished second in their group to Wales, scoring three, conceding two, and I couldn’t be happier with the way we’ve played.
If there’s one thing that we’ve seen from England in Euro 2016 that we’ve rarely seen in the past decade, it’s a team that can keep possession of the ball.
Easy to do when the opposition aren’t pressing you for it, but it says a lot about England’s reputation now that teams are frightened to attack us.
Under Sven-Goran Eriksson in 2006, we were a slow, lumbering team that could barely string three or four passes together before Beckham lumped it 40 yards up to lone-striker Crouch to knock down for the Ecuadorian defenders to easily collect.
Fabio Capello tried to implement the basis for a possession based team in 2010, but had neither the players suited to this nor the ability to create anything more than a snooze-fest of players content to take three touches each before rolling the ball sideways. Inevitably it would end up with Gerrard losing patience and hammering his fabled Hollywood diagonal balls out to touch.
Nevertheless, current manager Roy Hodgson, in his third attempt, has put together a group of players who not only can pass the ball about without giving it away, but don’t result in you losing the will to live whilst watching.
This isn’t tiki-taka, thank God. Unlike Spain in 2010 and 2012, this isn’t a defensive style of play for England. We don’t retain possession so that the other team can’t have the ball, boring the opposition into surrendering, and grinding out 1-0 wins all the way to the final.
Despite claims by Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale, England are still showing the “passhun” that has often been a hammer to strike us with in the past. All passion with little quality dogged England teams post-98.
Our midfield as it stands after the first three games of Euro 2016 has shown a capability to shut out opposition counter-attacks before they really begin, whilst also playing out calmly with the ball-to-feet for our attacking players to surge forward.
There’s an enterprising style to England’s play. We’re able to patiently build up attacks, edging closer to goal without losing our heads. Alternatively, we can attack with pace from wide positions as our full-backs bomb on like a budget Cafu and Roberto Carlos on either flank. Our options even allow us to play through the middle, with midfielders Alli and Rooney driving forward, forcing defences deeper.
Despite qualifying with our 100% win record, and despite having the second youngest squad in the tournament, with the Premier League’s top scorer leading the line, this dark spectre of Tournaments Past looms ever large in the background.
Even if the opening group game felt that way, we are yet to lose a match. Snatching victory from the red, clawed, scaly clutches of the Wales game showed a resilience and doggedness not seen at all in the last Euros in Poland and Ukraine, nor as we crashed out of Brazil two years ago.
We may have only scored three goals in three games, with only two of those from open play, but this is the best that an England side have played at an international tournament since Euro 2004.
Fitting then that we might face Portugal in the knock-out stages on Monday evening should they finish second in group F. It will be a grudge match for the English as we were twice knocked out in succession by the Portuguese.
As the only team in that group not likely to crowd their own penalty area for the duration of the game with just one or two players as outlets, it will present a different challenge to England.
Russia, Wales and Slovakia effectively set themselves up against England not to lose, with one player taking on sole responsibility to cause England trouble (Dzyuba, Bale and Duda respectively). Iceland, Hungary and Austria would potentially pose similar problems for England with Sigurdsson, Arnautovic and Dzsudzsák their respective outlets.
As much as England have played well, they have found this style of opposition hard to penetrate. Portugal are more adventurous and unlike the final friendly where England won 1-0, they are unlikely to play in a similar manner. For a start, they are quite likely to keep all 11 players on the pitch, and as misfiring as he has been, they do have Ronaldo back in their squad, who will cause a nervy defence like ours all kinds of problems.
Gareth Bale’s attacking threat was successfully kept to a minimum in the Wales game, and England will take positives from that, looking to quash Ronaldo’s impetus in a similar manner.
England’s greatest concern will be trying to put the ball in the back of the net. I can’t help but feel that if we had a player like Michael Owen in the squad, this would not be a concern. However, if England just keep playing the way they have done so far, a place in the quarter-finals is not out of our grasp entirely.
Player Ratings after the group stage:
Joe Hart – Looked dodgy against Russia as the looping header sailed over his head in the 92nd minute. Looked really dodgy against Wales with his weak-wristed attempt to flap at Gareth Bales’s free-kick. Admittedly, Hart looked more comfortable yesterday against the 4-6-0 formation that Slovakia played, but given that he was required for only two shots on target by Hamsik and his team, that’s not surprising. The fact is, England’s first choice keeper could make a Robert Green sized gaffe and still his place as the undisputed number one would not be under threat. And let’s not get carried away with the criticism; he may not be Manuel Neuer or David de Gea, but he’s still a very good goaly. (6)
Fraser Forester – Not yet featured. (-)
Tom Heaton – Not yet featured. (-)
Kyle Walker – He’s essentially playing as a right midfielder as no team have dared to attack us in numbers yet. He’ doing well, but having little direct impact on results. Seems to prefer to play crosses into the box to feet, compared to… (7)
Nathaniel Clyne – …who likes to chuck balls into the box at head-height. I like Walker and would retain him as first choice, but Clyne did very well against Slovakia. Either could start in the last 16 and it would not make too much difference to our style of play or the outcome. From shoe-horning Wes Brown, Phil Jones and Jamie Carragher into the right-back position as cover for Glen Johnson, to having these two now vying for a starting berth, it is an enviable position for England to be in. (7)
Chris Smalling – Partly at fault for not spotting the danger in the Russia game, plus an awful chested back-pass yesterday that could have cost us if the Slovakian forward was more alert. Otherwise, he’s looked our most dependable defender. However, it seems that there’s always one inevitable mistake lurking in each 90 minutes he plays for England. Fears over him playing as a left-sided centre-back have largely been quashed. Aside from a late header that surged just past the post from Bale, both he and Cahill both nullified the Wales counter-attack – arguably the only attacks they’ve had to deal with in the entire three games. (6)
Gary Cahill – Seems to be the defender whose responsibility is to bring the ball out of the back four, which shouldn’t be that surprising. He is the centre-half who scored a Brazil-like overhead kick against Birmingham whilst playing for Villa. He was much more assured against Slovakia whilst wearing the captain’s arm-band, but like most of our defence, still looks nervous at times. (6)
Danny Rose – Didn’t have a great game against Wales, but then he didn’t exactly play badly either. Like Walker and Clyne, he hasn’t really been tested defensively (mismatched Vasili Berezutski header aside) but attacking-wise, he’s penetrated and roamed with the freedom of the left-hand side without offering any significant threat to worry opposition defenders. (6)
Ryan Bertrand – Actually I have to confess that I preferred Bertrand to Rose before the pre-tournament friendlies. After his chance last night, I felt that he looked like a liability. Accidental as I’m sure it was, he was lucky that he didn’t get sent off for cracking Peter Pekarik’s nose in half with his elbow. A player supposedly more reliable in defence than Rose, it seems his greatest contribution is that he allowed the aforementioned to have a breather in this tightly packed schedule of games. (5)
John Stones – Not yet featured. (-)
Eric Dier – The 22 year old has been our most consistent player – and arguably our best. He remains composed when England are hit by counter attacks; he’s calm in possession, has scored a great free-kick and even chipped in with a few dangerous-looking balls pinged forward too (which is more than any of his colleagues managed against Slovakia). The Spurs holding midfielder is the player that we’ve been lacking in the national side for the past decade. It’s the role that Scott Parker, Gareth Barry, Phil Jones and Michael Carrick (plus Hiddleston, Shelvey, Drinkwater, Gerrard, etc etc) have all tried to fill since Owen Hargreaves regrettably succumbed to his injuries. He makes everything tick when playing this formation and is the perfect cultured footballer to compliment the more attack-minded options around him. The real test of his abilities will come when we play a team who don’t camp in their own penalty box for 90 minutes, but so far, so bloody good. (8)
Adam Lallana – All effort and very little end product. This seems to be the story of his career. Unequivocally England’s most talented player with the ball at his ambipedic feet, but he never looks like scoring. Although that’s maybe rather harsh as creating chances rather than burying them is his forte. He created nearly 50 of them in the Premier League last season from less than 25 starts at Liverpool. It seems likely, given his impressive start at Euro 2016, that he’ll continue to be a key player for us. (7)
Wayne Rooney – All scepticism about Rooney operating in the “Scholes” role was put to bed in the opening game as he orchestrated many of our attacks against Russia in an impressive opening 45 minutes. Again, when up against a resolute Wales defence, he dictated play. Rotating him out of the squad for the Slovakia game was the right call, but he had little-to-no impact when coming from the bench. Whoever we play in the next round, he quite rightly deserves his starting midfield spot – more than most (including myself) would have given him before the tournament began. (7)
Dele Alli – Few bright spots in the tournament thus far, but that may be due to the system he’s employed in. Whilst Harry Kane looked an isolated figure up front against Russia, the formation was crying out for Alli to switch to a central role and link up play with his club teammate. As indeed happened for the final 15 minutes of that game where Alli looked his most effective in the entirety of the group stages. He hasn’t put a foot wrong yet, but by the same token, has failed to show his impressive Premier League form in France. A few half-chances here and there are not what we have come to expect from such a dynamic attacking threat. (6)
Jordan Henderson – Industrious in the centre of the pitch against Slovakia, as we have come to expect from Liverpool’s captain, but still had a very off night. He linked well with club-colleagues Clyne and Lallana down the right in the first half, but soon looked off the pace. He frequently misplaced passes and failed to beat the first man with his set-pieces – that is when he wasn’t wasting possession with the irritating phenomenon of short-corners. I would actually rather see Harry Kane take corners in future than Henderson! His game was summed up when, in the 95th minute, rather than floating a ball into the opposition’s penalty box as England chased a winning goal, he instead jogged 15-20 yards with the ball into the centre-circle, turned… and passed it back to central defence. Peep-peep-peeeep. (5)
Jack Wilshire – Supposedly brought into the team to be our ball-playing midfielder who can control the game with his range of passing and unmatched vision and reading of the game. Ha! He offered nothing against Slovakia. As many suspected, he looked short of match sharpness with no creativity in the final third. There goes Hodgson’s promise to only pick in-form and fully-fit players for the 23-man squad, eh. (4)
Raheem Sterling – Wilshere is saved from being our least influential player at the tournament so far by a dyer showing from Manchester City’s £49m winger. Indeed, he is our only out-and-out winger in the squad, with Hodgson opting not to include Andros Townsend, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Ashley Young. I would say it’s an oversight, but our formation doesn’t call for width from these sorts of players as it relies on full-backs. Sterling barely deserved to remain on the pitch against Russia – and definitely did not deserve to retain his place against Wales. Shorn of confidence, he skied his best effort on goal in both appearances early on in the first half. Effective substitutions at half time probably mean the most expensive English footballer ever will quite rightly not start again for the remainder of the Euros. He could be an option from the bench against tired opposition legs, but we have better alternatives. (4)
James Milner – Went into the tournament as England’s highest rated player for some reason. Despite wearing the number 4 shirt, he’s featured only once, coming on for the final five minutes against Russia in place of the unavailing Sterling. In that time, we conceded a goal. Causation or correlation..? (-)
Ross Barkley – Not yet featured. (-)
Daniel Sturridge – Has yet to play in his preferred central-striker role, but has seemed like England’s most likely source of goals in his two appearances thus far. Hodgson’s gamble to throw both Sturridge and Jamie Vardy on the pitch at half time against Wales seemed risky, but his quick feet and coolness in front of goal prevailed with a sublime finish to poke past Palace shot-stopper Wayne Hennessey that secured three vital points. Whether drifting out wide, running in behind, or dropping deep, he’s offered an outlet for England’s attack and linked well with the players around him. A definite starter against whomever we face next. (7)
Jamie Vardy – England, and indeed their opponents, are not set up to play to Vardy’s strengths. Reliant on his pace when running onto through balls and clinical finishing, we haven’t see the best of the Leicester striker when up against compacted defences during the group stages. Took his goal against Wales like an instinctive, natural striker should (despite positionally being a good few yards offside, catching a lucky break with the ball bouncing off Ashley Williams) but has had few opportunities to make an impact since. When his chance came against Slovakia, racing onto a dinked ball splitting the unusually high-line of defence, an in-form Vardy for Leicester would have slotted the ball in at the near post. Instead, perhaps lacking belief in his own ability, the startled striker shot straight at Slovakia’s keeper. Few touches in the game are to be expected given his style of play, but he will likely feature mainly as an impact sub from now on. (6)
Harry Kane – Tired. Jaded. Lethargic. Cumbersome. Isolated. All words that have been written about last season’s Premier League’s top goal scorer after the opening three games. England’s number 9 has yet to find his feet in the 4-3-3 formation so far. Support from out wide has not served him well, and with no link directly behind him from an Alli, Rooney or similar, he’s cut a frustrated figure in front of goal. The 4-2-3-1 formation in friendlies – and even the oft-experimented with 4-4-2 diamond – suited Kane’s rhythm, but it seems for all England’s talent going forward, we’ve yet to get the best out of any of our strikers. He’s had one or two chances; a few flicked headers here, a scuffed shot there, but when his best contribution so far is to leave a free-kick to his Spurs teammate Dier, then it’s not been a great tournament for him so far. (5)
Marcus Rashford – Unlucky to not get on the pitch against Slovakia as his lively introduction helped swing the tide against Wales. A nervy start soon dissipated as he shook their sturdy defence with some intense attacking play. It might be too soon to see him start in the round of 16, but his 20-minute cameo was enough to suggest he could still play a crucial role for England. (-)