As sendoffs go, it is probably fair to say Roy Hodgson hoped for better in England’s final match before Euro 2016 than seeing his team look so leaden, the crowd so bored they resorted to making their own entertainment and a tetchy press conference when the questions centred around whether his team were heading into another tournament without any clarity about their best way of playing.
England had looked devoid of spark or spontaneity until the point, late on, when Chris Smalling spared them even fiercer analysis with the game’s decisive moment, and to play that drearily was quite some feat bearing in mind the number of attacking players Hodgson had shoehorned into his starting lineup.
It was alarming, to say the least, with England’s opening game against Russia coming up in Marseille a week on Saturday and it does leave questions for Hodgson about why he has left it so late to experiment with Wayne Rooney, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy in the same side. It has been a long time since Vardy, for instance, has looked so flat, but that was just in keeping with England’s overall display on a night when they failed to put together a noteworthy chance until Smalling’s 86th-minute header.
It summed up England’s display that their right-back, Kyle Walker, was named the man of the match and Hodgson was surely just trying to defend his team when he argued it had not been a below-par display, especially given Bruno Alves, one of Portugal’s centre-backs, was sent off in the first half. “We looked good,” Hodgson insisted. Yet no one was fooled. Hodgson can take encouragement from the way his side churned out a win but there will have to be a considerable improvement when they reach French territory and, on this evidence, Spain, Germany and all the rest do not have to be concerned.
The lowering of expectations is not necessarily a bad thing but Hodgson’s demeanour was nothing like as upbeat as his words and he may have to reassess the best way of lining up his front players. Rooney’s position as the No10, with Kane and Vardy operating as split strikers, meant shunting Dele Alli out of the role where he has excelled for Tottenham Hotspur. Kane and Vardy were under instructions to mark the opposition full-backs when Portugal had the ball but, unfortunately for England, it never quite looked right seeing the two most prolific scorers in the Premier League operating as part-time wingers. With Kane drifting right and Alli on the left side of midfield, it also meant there was little of the link-up play that has made them so formidable together for Spurs.
If Hodgson does persevere with this starting lineup, England’s manager will actually be entrusting five of his places to players from White Hart Lane. Eric Dier has moved ahead of Jack Wilshere when it comes to the holding midfield role, while Walker and Danny Rose are clearly not only there to defend when they have the running ability to drive forward from the full-back positions and supply the width that might otherwise be lacking. Walker, in particular, was involved in some of England’s brighter attacks and those forward surges made it easy to understand why Hodgson opted for Dier, rather than the more attack-minded Wilshere, in a covering position.
With such an adventurous side, however, it felt bemusing England played with so little tempo. Vardy, for instance, thrives on quick, penetrative football and he struggled to make any impact whatsoever during those awkward spells, even before the red card for Alves, when Hodgson’s team huffed and puffed without really creating anything. Perhaps the most perplexing part is that England are still looking for the right formation so close to the tournament and, in a strange way, it probably did not help Hodgson’s fact-finding when Portugal lost Alves in the 35th minute.
At 34, Alves surely ought to have enough experience to understand his flying, studs-up challenge on Kane was senseless in a game of this nature.
To put it in context, Kane is a six-footer and was jumping for the ball when Alves’s boot caught him on the side of the head. It is a measure of Kane’s competitive instincts that he was immediately back on his feet, chasing after the ball, but he could have been badly injured. The Italian referee, Marco Guida, made the correct decision and Kane should just be relieved he escaped unhurt.
England took an awfully long time to realise they should, in theory, be pinning back their opponents. It is never a good sign when the crowd try to make their own fun and the first Mexican wave started snaking around the stadium shortly before the hour. England had laboured to half-time and the improvement that may have been anticipated after the break failed to materialise. The crowd were too genial to turn on the players but in other ways it was not the atmosphere Hodgson would have liked – and the simple reason for that was his team did not do enough to make it a more fulfilling occasion.
Midway through the second half Hodgson started trying to switch things around. Raheem Sterling replaced the ineffectual Vardy and took over as the forward tip of the midfield quartet. Rooney moved into Vardy’s slot and Wilshere came on for James Milner at the same time. Alli duly swapped over to the right side of midfield but the formation stayed the same until Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana came on for Kane and Rooney in the 78th minute and Hodgson switched to a 4-3-3 system.
Smalling’s glancing header, from Sterling’s cross, did continue England’s winning sequence but Hodgson will know, deep down, that his team need to get these kind of performances out of their system.
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