England are yet to yield three points from an opening game at the European Championships after conceding a late sucker-punch to an insipid Russia side.
In contrast to other opening games in previous tournaments, however, the young and hungry Lions deserved much, much more as they played with a freedom not usually associated with an England side.
Seemingly tired of being accused of employing conservative tactics, Roy Hodgson took the shackles off his side – fielding FIVE attacking-minded players in his starting XI – and his boldness was rewarded with a free-flowing, daring and intrepid performance, particularly in the first-half… even if two of his forwards options were off the boil.
It was certainly in contrast to England’s last meaningful tournament match – a devastating 2-1 defeat to Uruguay at the World Cup two years ago – as Hodgson named just four players who started on that forgetful evening in Sao Paulo.
The manager’s bravery to introduce, amongst others, the charismatic and energetic Dele Alli, Eric Dier and Adam Lallana and integrate them into the fold deserves particular credit. But it was his skipper Wayne Rooney’s transformation which proved to be the masterstroke.
In 2014, Rooney held an attacking responsibility in a poor England side but he appeared much more effective in a midfield role in today’s promising team. The 30-year-old is the most experienced player and he led by example, earning a fitting comparison to former team mate Paul Scholes by some analysts.
Dropping deep to collect possession and intervening to split up attacks on the rare occasions Russia came forward, Rooney played the orchestrator for his team.Indeed, Rooney also proved to be England’s biggest threat in attack, compensating for a lacklustre performance from forwards Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling.
For all of Hodgson’s positive thinking, however, his decision to replace his captain on 78 minutes with Jack Wilshere raised eyebrows and even his biggest fan will find it difficult to defend such a substitution.
By then, of course, England were deservedly leading 1-0 after the tireless Dier smashed in a wonderful free-kick to break the deadlock.The young Tottenham player is now surely one of the first names on the team-sheet and his goal capped yet another impressive display from the anchorman as he played with the same level of determination he has shown throughout the season with his club.
The absence of England’s leader led to a vulnerability in defence though and it culminated in a late goal as Vasili Berezutski secured an unlikely point for Russia.It was the last thing his side deserved. In the week building up to the tournament boss Leonid Slutsky lost two of his key players, Alan Dzagoev and Igor Denisov, forcing a radical shake-up, particularly in midfield. It had an estranged effect and Russia looked like a rabbit caught in the head lights for large periods of the game.They rarely troubled their opponents prior to their dramatic equaliser and it seems difficult to envisage Russia progressing much further after the group stages.
It is worrying then that England failed to earn maximum points. Despite the clearly superior technical ability exhibited, England rarely succeeded in truly hurting an ordinary side.Goals win games and ultimately they weren’t prolific in front of goal, despite their dominance.
At this level, incompetency in attack is usually punished and this proved to be case at the Stade Velodrome. Aided and supported by two attacking-minded full-backs Kyle Walker and Danny Rose, England’s forward line had plenty of opportunities to secure all three points.
The ineffectiveness of Kane and Sterling begs the question – why didn’t Jamie Vardy start – or, at least, make an appearance in the second-half? Based on his attributes showcased over a hugely successful season with Leicester City, Vardy would have revelled on such a night. It’s food for thought for the manager.
Overall, Hodgson got almost everything right, however. And while it was an extremely positive showing from England there are still changes to be made as they look forward in this year’s competition, beginning with the withdrawal of Manchester City’s £50m-flop Sterling who truly flattered to deceive.
With minor adjustments and a more clinical touch, there are signs Hodgson and England could go far in this year’s tournament – but they will face much sterner opponents than Russia, beginning with rivals Wales on Thursday afternoon.