England will depart for the European Championship finals in France on the back of a three-game winning streak but with the manager, Roy Hodgson, having grown irritated at criticism of his use of Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy.
Hodgson employed that pair alongside Wayne Rooney, nominally at the tip of a diamond, for the first time together in the narrow victory over Portugal’s 10 men only for the two leading English scorers over the Premier League season to find themselves too often pinned to the periphery. Both Kane and Vardy, who was substituted having had only nine touches of which one was from the kick-off, split to the wings with Rooney forever muscling his way upfield between them and through the middle.
Hodgson argued the strikers, who scored 49 league goals between them last term, “had to split” playing that system though the tactic drew criticism from outside the camp, not least from the former England forwards, Alan Shearer and Gary Lineker. Shearer took to social media to argue: “If you’re going to play Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy then at least play them as centre-forwards and not wingers. Or what’s the point?”
Lineker argued they should have been paired together and suggested width “should be provided by full-backs, not the two strikers”.
“We played with split strikers,” said Hodgson. “If you play with them both through the middle with Rooney central as well you can’t defend the wide areas. There were some moments where you might be right and Kane and Vardy were a little too wide but their job is to split and come together at the right times. If you play with a man in behind them, you have to make sure he has space in which to run.
“I’m not prepared to accept that we didn’t play well. Portugal are ranked higher than us in the Fifa rankings, so there is no reason to be dissatisfied. We looked good, we had composure throughout the game and it would have been better to play against 11. I’m very pleased with three wins, we never looked like conceding a goal. I’m not prepared to add my voice to the debate [on the strikers]. We need all of our players playing well, and I’m not prepared to stand here and criticise some players. If I start being dissatisfied with three wins against Australia, Turkey and Portugal I’m going to be a hard coach to satisfy.”
Rooney was more cautious in his assessment of the victory, secured four minutes from time by Chris Smalling’s header. “We were the better team but we need to play better, we know that,” he said. “But it’s a good sign that we didn’t play well and won the game. The manager is working on the three up front. There are 23 men in the squad, it’s about all of us. We are ready. We haven’t been at our best but we have won the three games.”
England, who had a 100% record in qualifying, depart for their base in Chantilly on Monday on another good run. “I’d like to think momentum is important,” Hodgson said. “You never suffer from winning matches. You suffer from defeats. It’s good we haven’t sailed through the matches, too. Each has posed us some problems and shown us some areas we’d still like to improve upon and work upon.
“The two and a half weeks we’ve had together have been very intensive and the players have been excellent in the way they’ve buckled down, working hard to improve the shape of our team, movement in attack and shape in defence. I’m happy we’re on the right track in that respect.
“We’ll go to France reasonably confident we can keep this going but also knowing we’re not the finished article. Had we won the three games 3-0 or 4-0 there’d have been a lot of pressure on a young team with people saying we’re going to win it now.”
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