In the midst of a scarring, salty day in Marseille it was a relief to get stuck into the questions that were purely about football. Watching England emerge into the vast atmospheric waves of the Vélodrome it was pertinent to wonder if Roy Hodgson had pitched his gambled selection right. Too attacking? Too carefree with the throw of the dice to suddenly pick the captain in unfamiliar midfield?
Too quirky to go for Adam Lallana ahead of Jamie Vardy as an option to raid from high up on the flanks? Could they respond to the warm hope and handle the heavyweight expectancy? At the end of it all, some of those questions still hung in the air.
In some ways it felt reminiscent of Manaus and the opening game of the World Cup two years ago in Brazil. Then, in the Amazonian heat, England began against Italy with an intriguing attack that positioned Daniel Sturridge at the apex, with Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney cajoling either side of a teenaged Raheem Sterling who was given the licence to shimmy from the central attacking playmaking role. But against those wily Italian defenders, with Andrea Pirlo orchestrating in front of them, England’s promise petered out.
Sturridge scored – but it is a sign of how the cycles in football fluctuate that the man who grabbed the winner for Italy was a young maverick striker whose career has subsequently shrunk, Mario Balotelli.
One of the glaring problems that Hodgson faced when he returned from Brazil, beaten, bottom of the group and with only one point and two goals to show from their World Cup misadventure, was the sudden shortage of proven goalscorers in his squad. The retirements of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard whisked away two prolific forces from midfield.
Interestingly, two summers on, with Rooney withdrawn into the midfield heartland here in France with very different responsibilities that he handled with class, England’s attacking trident picked to run at Russia’s veteran backbone was not exactly blessed with outstanding scoring records on the international scene – not yet, anyway. Adam Lallana went into this tournament on zero. Raheem Sterling with two. Harry Kane five.
As Spain proved with their possession game in winning Euro 2012, the team ethic can reduce the need to rely on authentic forwards.
But, naturally, there was a certain burden carried by Kane after two such prolific domestic seasons that catapulted him into the elite. He did not have his most productive time in what turned out to be a challenging night against Russia, but he is not the type to dwell. He is looking forward with determination and diligence.
He may find himself with some different accomplices to work off after an evening when Lallana and Sterling showed dangerous flashes but without being hugely influential. The clearest of the chances did not fall Kane’s way and his touch was not as smooth as it has been for most of the season. Lallana slashed at a couple of opportunities and might reflect that he should have scored his first goal for his country. Sterling made a couple of fizzing runs but strained for end product.
But the opportunities for Kane to link up with his cohorts did not present themselves easily or precisely. Vardy, Sturridge and even the wild card, Marcus Rashford, might have asked different questions of Russia.
Notably, a more driven threat came further back in the shape of Dele Alli. His willingness to take risks when he glimpsed a chance to advance was a promising feature.
Those instincts did not always work but that eagerness to express himself stood out. Trying to be disciplined playing deeper than his most regular position for Tottenham, he had that spirit of a puppy straining against the leash. He wanted to veer ahead, make something happen, ignite a spark.
Tournament football for matchwinners so often boils down to moments. Mario Götze seized his at the last World Cup final where Gonzalo Higuaín could not. Paul Gascoigne’s nearly moment against Germany at Euro 1996 lives on in English football history. David Trezeguet’s golden goal in 2000 is indelible for France.
Such similarly pivotal moments are way down the line for England after an opening-day draw, of course. The evening ended with regrets, after some purposeful play and the rush of positive vibes that greeted what they thought was the breakthrough.
That came from an unexpected source – the thunderous boot of Eric Dier. Igor Afinkeev had been solid in the Russian goal but could not reach the unerring trajectory as the Tottenham man’s set piece arrowed past him into the top corner.
It was not enough. Russia’s response, with that last-gasp equaliser to whip away the shoots of encouragement, took the wind out of England’s sails.
It underlined how periods of dominance needed a more clinical edge. Russia could have been seen off with more ruthlessness before the equaliser.
Overall England could do with sharpening up their front line in the coming matches against Wales and Slovakia, especially if they intend to make serious inroads in this competition.
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