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England’s track record in international tournaments features instantly forgettable group stage games; but Saturday’s clash with Russia is likely to remain long in the memory, albeit mostly for all the wrong reasons.
In the days and hours leading up to the game there was controversy in Marseille as English supporters were involved in trouble with police and rival supporters, and further frustration was to follow when Russia scored an injury time equaliser following a game Roy Hodgson’s team had dominated.
Concentrating on the football, then, for the ugly off-pitch events have dominated enough headlines - for much of the game, England’s performance was all that supporters could have hoped for. They were confident and dominant in a fashion that has been notable by its absence during other 21st century tournaments and even their profligacy was forgiven when Eric Dier struck a fabulous free kick to give the Three Lions the lead.
Dier - like his club colleague, Dele Alli - had brought his domestic form into this game, with it clear to see why the pair have earned rave reviews all season long for their displays at White Hart Lane. They were the heartbeat of an energetic display and Wayne Rooney, getting accustomed to his new role in the midfield, was arguably the star man for much of the evening, with his intelligent passing catching the eye and creating opportunities.
It was a far cry from the shallow performances seen too often from the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ and felt like a significant step up from the last time England played in a tournament, back in Brazil in 2014 when Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson were first choice. That abysmal World Cup offering is the reason why expectations are so low this time around; for too long, supporters and former players have opined and complained that England had lost their identity and their style.
So the first eighty minutes was not only welcome but begged the question - what’s changed, and who is responsible? Because, while expectations may ultimately be low, hopes remain high - doubtlessly because of the form of individuals like Dier. Like Alli. Like their Spurs colleague Harry Kane. Like the buzzing Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford, waiting in the wings, desperate to make an impact.
All of these names are of players who have sprung into international contention since the last World Cup, and all of them are names that supporters are happy to see in the starting line-up. When it seemed as if a breakthrough was never going to come, there was a clamour to see Rashford and Vardy introduced for Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana. The former was disappointing in his delivery and the latter, while better on the night, still struggled from wide to make the breakthrough, and the direct approach of either of the two forwards waiting from the wings to make an impact on the wings may well have been favourable.
Hodgson, though, held on. England created chance after chance in the first half and while it was nigh on impossible to replicate that same energy through the entirety of the second period, there was no doubting who was the boss team. With nothing looking like changing from a tactical point of view, it was Dier’s class from a set-piece which told.
Just reward for patience? A fair reflection of the game to that point, no doubt, but was it vindication of a) the selection and b) the refusal to make a change, or was it instead the stroke of fortune that otherwise would not have come? If, at that point, you felt that England’s goal had come in spite of the fact that Hodgson hadn’t yet made a change, you’d have been given food for thought by the subsequent, and final, fifteen minutes.
Rooney was withdrawn and replaced by Jack Wilshere and of course it is easy with hindsight to challenge the wisdom of this move but, nonetheless, it should be done. Rooney may have been tiring but there were just 10 minutes left; the energy of Wilshere was spent racing into those terrier like positions to try and close the ball down, instead of maintaining his composure. And, when the change for Sterling finally came, it was James Milner, and not Vardy or Rashford.
Without their captain, England grew jittery, and the confident performance appeared to dissipate as the minutes drew on. Berezutski’s equaliser, when it came, felt inevitable. Typical England, after more than an hour when it was anything but.
Hodgson said afterwards that he was ‘bitterly disappointed’ by the result, but appeared to bemoan the fortune of the footballing gods and sod’s law of the last minute equaliser.
But it could have been avoided, and should have been, and so one wonders if a manager as experienced as Hodgson can trace the change of the game back to his own interference with it. Subsequently, the question should be asked as it has been for the last two disappointing outings in tournaments - is he the right man for the job?
After all, the rise to prominence of Dier and Alli, to name just two (but to name the two players who are playing in positions crucial to England’s performance) is more wonderful accident than design. It is more of a freak than justification of English football turning the corner; Alli’s, in particular, more of an indication of its self-destructive nature of the domestic game at the top flight that sees these remarkable talents cast to the lower leagues. He is living proof for all to see that the adage ‘if you’re good enough, you’ll make it’ simply cannot ring true if the opportunities are not provided. So, if the form of the players he has at his disposal can be traced to freak and fortune rather than some wise masterplan that has existed over his tenure, then Hodgson’s influence on games - with his selection, and his changes - should be assessed accordingly.
No-one expects Alli and Dier to have the experience needed to close out those nervy stages. That’s the captain’s job. But he wasn’t there. After an hour of the game, no-one expected a breakthrough from wide given the way England had struggled. They were crying out for the pace and directness of Vardy and/or Rashford. But then came the goal, and, on the face of it, reward. Good management, or good fortune?
All would have been forgotten if the three points had been achieved but in the wake of the failure to hold on to them, it ought to be remembered that this was a poor, and below-strength, Russia team that should have been out of this game before the clock struck 90. One suspects that with the right changes at the right time, they would have been blown away.
And so all the positives need to be tempered with this thought - do England for once have all the tools to make an impact, but don’t have the right coach? The answers will probably reveal themselves over the next two games but, given the potential that is in the squad, if England fail to get out of the group stage this time around, surely the man on the sidelines has to take the criticism.
Follow Wayne Barton on Twitter @Yolkie_
Wayne Barton has been the football columnist for international broadcaster Setanta Sports since 2011 and has been described by the Independent as ‘the leading writer on Manchester United on the period between Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson’ after numerous books on the club and autobiographies. The most recent are ‘74/75’ with Tommy Docherty and ‘Rise Of The Underdog’, the autobiography of Danny Higginbotham.
Wayne has also worked in Hollywood and across the USA with Gold and Platinum selling musicians and actors from the monster hit TV show ‘Breaking Bad’.