It was a small thing in the context of the numbing deflation that pursued England from the Bouches-du-Rhône back to sleepy Chantilly, but it still irked.
Harry Kane took as many corners, seven, at Stade Vélodrome on Saturday as he had in the top flight all season for Tottenham Hotspur and for all that Roy Hodgson spoke of the forward offering “the best delivery” of any member of his squad, the sight of the striker pinging over set pieces baffled more onlookers than just Alan Shearer. “If a manager asked me to take corners, my answer would be: ‘Ask someone else to take them,’” the former England international had said. Fortunately for the incumbent, it is in Kane’s nature never to say no.
Drawn matches at the start of tournaments tend to conjure up more questions than answers, especially when a team have essentially played well for long periods only to be undone at the last. Just as their patient approach is about to be praised, an equaliser in stoppage time switches all the focus to the perceived profligacy when they were dominant.
Quirks of the performance which might have been forgotten in victory suddenly become issues which grate, of which Kane’s corner-taking is one. “We have so many players in the penalty area who are very good at attacking the ball, Wayne Rooney being one who is very good in that area,” said Hodgson. The captain has scored seven goals following corners for Manchester United over the last five years. For what it’s worth, only one of those was a header.
These are the subtleties Hodgson can tweak before the “derby” frenzy predicted by Gareth Bale for Lens on Thursday, when the bedlam will hopefully be confined to the pitch and the game better suited to the Premier League. It is less realistic to expect him to eradicate the naivety which flared in the latter stages of Saturday’s draw once Rooney and his 112 caps, more of which were won in tournaments than the rest can offer combined, had been removed from the fray. The manager cited fatigue, though the player’s body language betrayed a certain scepticism.
“That’s the manager’s decision, I respect it,” he said. “He’s doing what he feels is right and that’s why he’s paid to be manager, to make those decisions.” Even as an inexperienced team they should not have been undone by a hopeful punt into a cluttered penalty box by one of the poorer sides at this tournament. It was an older head, James Milner, who should have closed down Georgi Schennikov and choked the cross which provided Vasili Berezutski’s reward, but the whole team were paying for an untimely pang of panic.
More damning was the profligacy, that familiar failure to capitalise on dominance which had undermined Hodgson’s charges against Italy in Manaus in the opening fixture of the 2014 World Cup. The manager might ask what more he could have done, given Kane, the top flight’s leading scorer last season, was spearheading an attack-minded selection. Yet, when the occasion was drifting and demanded a more proactive approach, Hodgson had delayed, contemplated and eventually veered towards caution. Might Daniel Sturridge not have provided more cutting edge while the game lingered goalless around the hour, particularly with Kane shy of his best? Should Jamie Vardy not have replaced Raheem Sterling when Russia, mustering themselves for a late push for parity after Eric Dier’s free-kick, appeared vulnerable to the counterattack?
If the original lineup had been bold, the in-game switches were anything but. Jack Wilshere replaced Rooney. Milner came on for Sterling. Jordan Henderson was preparing to take over from Adam Lallana when Berezutski punctured all the optimism.
Hodgson always denies claims he is naturally conservative, and his own observations from the touchline would have been backed up by in-game statistics from his analysts, but there was an argument the scenario demanded renewed impetus, not changes merely aimed at clinging to the status quo. Russia were there for the taking. England, a team with attacking options aplenty on the bench, should have stretched them, not sought to contain. The late failure made it all seem like a reversion to type.
The missed opportunity leaves Hodgson’s team braced to confront a Wales side who boast Group B’s early momentum and the management, armed with Jamie Clapham’s scouting reports, contemplating where changes must be made. If Saturday’s had been a match-specific selection aimed to exploit a ponderous, ageing side, then the scenario is different again on Thursday. It cannot simply be same again. Sterling’s indecision in the final third became a distraction in Marseille. Lallana, initially so bright, ultimately failed to seize his moment. He decorates games, rarely dominates them, and personified the lack of ruthlessness on display. “We thought those two would cause the Russians problems in those wider positions, and they did,” said Hodgson. “We also wanted Wayne in the team for the opening game. But we have options in those midfield and front positions to play a diamond or 4-3-3, and the players work on both systems in training.”
Logic might push Hodgson towards a more basic diamond at Stade Bollaert-Delelis, the manager pinning trust to his players’ individual quality over the power and conviction, or the “passion and pride” couplet offered by Bale, of the Welsh collective. There is scope to draft in Wilshere or Henderson from the start, and Vardy or Sturridge alongside Kane. Yet, if the contest is tight once again, Hodgson will have to react more assertively than he did in the opener. In Brazil, England had followed up a defeat which offered promise with a loss to ensure elimination. Somehow they must offer more in Lens.
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