The disappointment was obvious at the final whistle and there can be no doubt Roy Hodgson may ultimately regret making so many changes, the risk-taking that accompanied his choice of personnel and the unmistakable sense of an England side, once again, making life unnecessarily difficult for themselves.
What other conclusion can be drawn when Hodgson’s decision to give half a dozen players their first starts of Euro 2016, breaking the team’s momentum, ended with England losing top spot in Group B and forfeiting what should, in theory, have been a more straightforward assignment in the next stage of the competition?
Nobody can say with absolute certainty that England would have won this game if Hodgson had put out his strongest side but, equally, the suspicion will always be there and, at the very least, he has opened himself to allegations of carelessness when a second successive victory would have guaranteed a knockout tie against one of the third-placed finishers.
Instead England have finished behind Wales and that means they will go to Nice to face the Group F runners-up, possibly Portugal, next Monday. France will probably be waiting in the quarter-finals and there are logistical issues, too. England have lost the chance to play their next game in Paris, close to their Chantilly base. If they reach the semi-finals – and it might require eliminating the hosts in the Stade de France – they would have to return to Marseille, the last place anybody wants them to play after the carnage earlier in the competition. Hodgson was correct to argue his side were “totally dominant” but they still came up short and he will have to accept the reasons for disquiet after picking a side that had Wayne Rooney, among others, starting on the bench.
Hodgson is not renowned for that kind of gambling and it is certainly tempting to wonder if he might have been guilty of underestimating Slovakia. Jan Kozak’s side did, after all, win against Spain in qualifying, as well as having the audacity to beat Germany on their own soil a few weeks ago. Hodgson’s selection must have been a source of encouragement for the sokoli and it was a cause for frustration among the stands packed with England’s noisy followers. The first plaintive cries for Rooney to be brought on could be heard late in the first half.
Rooney was eventually introduced after 55 minutes for Wilshere and Hodgson admitted it had been a difficult night for the Arsenal player. Dele Alli followed shortly afterwards for Adam Lallana and that meant Rooney taking up a position on the left side of attack. Harry Kane was also introduced for the closing exchanges and England gave everything late on to find the elusive goal. The most disappointing aspect, perhaps, was that for all their possession there was a distinct lack of wit and creativity in the penalty area.
Nathaniel Clyne had a fine game as an overlapping right-back but England played with a lack of width and penetration for the most part. Lallana was prominently involved during his time on the pitch but, once again, there was little end product to go with his decoration. Jordan Henderson justified his selection but Lallana is becoming an elegant frustration and Hodgson’s attempts to put a positive slant on the match did not extend to Wilshere’s performance. “If you’re saying to me: ‘Can I sit here and say he set the world, or the field, alight?’ Of course he didn’t,” the manager said.
The same can be said of Jamie Vardy, who could not accept England’s most inviting chance of the opening half and seldom threatened after the interval. Vardy is better suited to counterattacking whereas England were virtually encamped in the opposition half during the late exchanges. Daniel Sturridge had looked more inventive and it was perplexing that Hodgson chose to take him off instead of his strike partner.
Would England have played better with Rooney in the starting lineup? No one can be surebut it might not be a coincidence that Rooney went straight down the tunnel at the end without acknowledging his manager. With so much emphasis on the team’s full-backs to get forward, a case could also be made that England are more dangerous with Kyle Walker and Danny Rose in the side rather than Clyne and Ryan Bertrand.
Although Slovakia scarcely threatened Joe Hart’s goal, it should not be overlooked that England had an almighty let-off seven minutes into the second half. Chris Smalling’s attempt to chest a cross back to Hart was short and, suddenly, the Slovakia attacker Robert Mak was threatening to get to the ball in front of England’s goalkeeper. Mak’s anticipation was superb but, having darted between his two opponents, he could not get a clean touch and the opportunity was lost.
That was England’s first warning and another came shortly afterwards when Hart had to be alert to keep out Vladimir Weiss’s low drive. In between, Sturridge’s perfectly weighted pass gave Clyne a shooting chance and the pressure on Slovakia’s goal was almost unremitting after Rooney, Alli and Kane were brought on. Alli almost scored with one of his first touches, denied by Martin Skrtel’s saving clearance, but England really ought to have created more clear chances given the amount of time they had on the ball. There were boos at the final whistle and the ramifications could be serious.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010