Well, that was a bit unexpected.
Thirteen years, five tournaments, 111 games and one white Pelé-style adolescence in the making: enter Wayne Rooney, England midfielder. Roy Hodgson might not see himself as a gambling man but he took a genuinely curious punt here on a wild, unsettling night in Marseille that saw all sides of this swooping steel cauldron sending huge gusts of noise skirling up into the powder blue hole above the lip of the stadium roof.
Again there was a genuine note of tension in the air as throughout the afternoon this fun, louche, hard-edged Mediterranean port city was the stage for some vicious moments of premeditated violence. At the final whistle here there was even a brief running battle in the laughably unsegregated mixed end, with Russian fans pouring through into England’s section, throwing punches and causing a mild stampede towards the fence at the far side. The French police were again notable only for their complete invisibility at the scene of the crime, an astonishing negligence given the tensions of the day.
On the pitch this was another decelerating tournament opener for England, fudged around another curious new-look team. Driven on by Rooney, dragged back by Russia, sent into premature ecstasy by Eric Dier’s spectacular and spectacularly unlikely free-kick opener, England see-sawed all over the place. They should have won the game well before Vasili Berezutski’s stoppage time equaliser.
But then their own lack of ruthlessness is hardly an excuse, just as a lack of a holding gear, a means of shutting this game out is consistent with England starting a tournament with the latest in a slew of revolving selections. Giddy at the sudden rush of options in his squad, at times over the last few weeks Hodgson has resembled a man trying to hurl together a high-class recette de filet mignon en croûte while sliding down the bannisters, pan under his chin, chopping board on one knee.
With Rooney in the middle England fielded two banks of three in front of the defence. On paper this meant five midfielders and one striker. Except one of the midfielders is actually a jobbing striker. Playing behind two real midfielders. While your best No10 is on the right. And the two most advanced creative players have two goals in 46 matches combined. Go, Roy’s tasty mix and match Provençal jambalaya!
And yet for all this the relocation of Rooney to midfield was a success. He played very well for 45 minutes as England gave a supreme display of how to dominate, but not actually get any closer to winning a football match. They bossed it, they cruised, they swanked across the Stade Vélodrome turf. As half-time nil-nils go, they flipping murdered them.
Rooney pinged spectacular diagonal passes through the evening air. Briefly he dwelt on the ball a little too long and was almost gegenpressed by Artem Dzyuba. Steady, Wayne. There was a lovely little double give and go with Raheem Sterling in the inside right channel, then a 40-yard sprint back to cut out a cross in the England area.
He bent a wonderful pass through a wormhole in the Russia defence. He thudded a flat, hard shot straight into Igor Akinfeev’s bunched fists. With 70 minutes gone and Russia dragging England back he shot low and hard and drew a fine save, the ball palmed up on to the bar. Squint a little, put it all together, and Rooney really did look like – whisper it – a man doing a pretty decent on-the-hoof turn as the complete midfielder.
And yet as the game wore on England did begin to congeal. Wayne in the middle worked during that initial adrenal burst, when he seemed to be able to make up this team on the go. Jack Wilshere and James Milner came on, an attempt to find a more settled rhythm in the centre of the pitch. But by the end England looked a strange team, remade in a strange image, with no obvious default shape or set of combinations.
Adam Lallana was a pretty conservative choice as England’s most advance right-sided attacker, perhaps even a Rooney-related move, a ripple from the centre, an innately conservative England manager allowing just one of his toes to disco dance. Lallana also missed England’s best two chances in the first half, both from the same position, the second a fine chance he never at any stage looked like taking. Meanwhile, Harry Kane took a corner. And another corner. Six of them in the first half alone. That’s a lot of precious tournament time hanging by the flag.
At the end of which two things stand out. Dier was not just England’s best player here, he was also pretty much the one member of that front six playing unarguably in his best, most settled position. And second, wherever they go from here, whatever team can be carved out of those malleable base materials, Rooney will remain England’s engine room in France.
Beyond that England now have to make this up again. Hodgson talked at the final whistle about further options, further tweaks that he might consider springing on the world for England’s remaining group games. It isn’t exactly clear where all this fidgeting has come from, Hodgson sashaying across the tournament stage like some top-hatted prestidigitator, swishing back the nylon sheet to reveal his XI, table magician-style. An interesting piece of misdirection no doubt. But it is a slightly odd way to go about building a team.
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