There was a period here when Roy Hodgson was staring at possible exit.
1) Hodgson reaps benefits of rare boldness
His decision to select the same side in successive matches for the first time since the losses to Italy and Uruguay at the World Cup 24 games previously appeared to have backfired. England, all huff and puff to no reward, trailed at the break with a lack of fizz in their passing and confidence on the wane. To the manager’s credit his reaction was bold, flooding the box with attackers and, in the end, the two strikers introduced at the interval scored the goals to send the team to the top of Group B. England had never won a game at a major tournament having trailed at half-time. This was historic – and a timely reward for a manager under pressure. That tag of conservatism, so often pinned to Hodgson, may have gone the same way as Wales.
2) Negative Wales fail to do themselves justice
Ashley Williams summoned players and staff together on the pitch after the final whistle, those in the huddle presumably reminded this team’s destiny remains in their own hands. What frustration they had was no doubt born of the fact they are capable of more than this. They felt they could hurt the English but, Bale’s free-kick aside, too much of this was blanket defence with only the hint of threat on the counter. There was plenty of industry, summed up by Williams and James Chester smothering Wayne Rooney’s shot as the captain threatened a second, but they ceded far too much territory. If that was the tactic, it was undone at the last. They can cling to Aaron Ramsey’s endless running and the fact they boast a world-class player in their ranks, and will go to Toulouse confident of beating Russia. But they will need to be more positive than this.
3) But could they expect more from Bale?
England were cursing Gareth Bale’s name at the break but, in general, they shackled the Real Madrid forward reasonably well throughout. Eric Dier, rapidly emerging as a proper force in this tournament à la Owen Hargreaves at the 2006 World Cup, was closest to the Welshman through the first half and maintained a level of control that rendered Chris Coleman’s side gummy as an attacking force. Few on the pitch would have considered the free-kick a viable scoring opportunity other than Bale himself, although Joe Hart should still have saved the swerving, dipping attempt. But, other than guiding a header wide deep into stoppage time, the 26-year-old’s threat was largely curbed. Russia, an ageing team in their third game in nine days with their own chances of progress slim, may not be quite as diligent in snuffing him out. The hope is Bale can run amok.
4) What has happened to young hope Sterling?
No other English player has cost more in a single transfer than Raheem Sterling. The £49m Manchester City winger was a rare positive from the dismal World Cup campaign in Brazil, a forward around whom Hodgson had envisaged building a new England team. And yet, two years on, it is hard to see how his game has improved. The suspicion is it has stagnated. The decision-making in the final third remains a huge issue, Sterling forever scuttling promisingly into dangerous areas before fluffing a pass or shot. His dawdling in possession here prompted wails of derision from England’s support, the 21-year-old a little boy lost. His withdrawal at the interval felt like a mercy. The talent he possesses is not in doubt – his confidence is merely shattered. But the 142 minutes he has played in France have been utterly underwhelming.
5) Are Sturridge and Vardy the best way forward?
The kneejerk reaction after a win snatched late is to consider all is well with the world after all. Indeed, there has been much that has been promising about England’s two performances to date, from the class of Dier and Rooney in midfield to the way both full-backs have buzzed menacingly up their respective flanks. Yet, when the ball is not shifted quickly enough, this team can still run aground. If Sterling clearly needs to be withdrawn from the limelight, the suspicion is Harry Kane may be suffering from well over 100 starts for club and country over the last two seasons, and might be in need of a breather. With that in mind, a switch to 4-3-3 with Daniel Sturridge and Jamie Vardy retained would surely make sense for the final group game against Slovakia, when momentum must be maintained. If bravery paid off for Hodgson after the break here, then why stop now?
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010