Roy Hodgson did not really want to leave the pitch at the end here. He paused and looked around the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard. He waved vaguely at the emptying stands. He strode across to shake Joe Hart’s hand as England’s last player left the pitch. In the end there was nothing left to do. Hodgson walked off, quite slowly.
This is not the end. It is probably not the beginning of the end. It might just be the middle of the end, though. Nice is lovely right now. It has a monied, elite retirement resort feel. It is here that England will now go to play their last-16 game, having been held 0-0 in Saint-Étienne while Wales romped past a wretched Russian team. A quarter-final against France in Paris now looms if England can get there. You have to play them sometime, they say. You also have to lose sometime. The general idea, though, is to stave it off as long as possible.
Perhaps England would not have been able to score against a competent Slovakia whatever selection they put out. Probably the real missed chance in Group B was that wild, decelerating draw in Marseilles where the gathering rage of Russia’s ultras almost seemed to suck the ball into England’s net in that horribly fevered final 10 minutes.
Really, though, the most remarkable thing about England’s Group B performance has been the contrast between the unremarkable monotony of their football and the fevered contortions of the manager behind them. Hodgson is adamant England dominated all three group games. He is right in a way. But this has been a sterile domination, football played at a stodgy, smothering pitch, remarkable only for its custard-like consistency through the frantic revolution in combinations and partnerships behind it.
Here Hodgson spun the wheel again, with six changes to the starting lineup, none of which materially changed the pattern of England’s attacks, the lack of real width, the sense of brittle combinations, of a team struggling on the hoof to get to know itself. The only really startling thing is the way in which England’s manager has now managed to make himself the story in all this. Hodgson does not really have to do any of this.
There is no magic formula in this England group waiting to be unpicked. The players are all of a standard more or less. Another moderate, hopeful group of England players are once again performing moderately at a tournament. So why make himself a target? Why place the bucket of water above his own classroom door? Why build a scaffold of all the chop-and-change formations, the ins and outs, and stride so manfully towards it?
They say this job sends men briefly, but publicly, mad. Bobby Robson would flap his blazer and twitch in moments of high tension. Graham Taylor sweated, his sodden pyjamas a matter of documentary record. Steve McClaren tried to smile, which only made it worse. Perhaps this is the madness of Roy, an intelligent, reflective man driven to a peculiar kind of restless tinkering. It is almost as though Hodgson has tried to cover himself in France by picking every team, all the teams. Even a frantically whirling, bonging blue-blazered grandfather clock tells the right time once a day.
At the end of which England have finished second in a moderate tournament group, playing without rhythm or drive or any sense of getting the most out of some talented parts. Just as remarkable is the basic boredom of the teams all this friskiness has rustled up here. The sheer novelty of Hodgson’s team selection was by far the most interesting about this England performance, like a man making a pan full of rubbery scrambled eggs while performing a handstand.
England did play well at times here, or at least like a group of individuals trying to force some spark into the game. How, one wonders, has it come to this, almost as though the tournament has come out of nowhere? England had a new shape, too, or at least an oddly fluid shape, all the shapes. It looked like a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2, or an adaptable 4-1-3-2. Later some other players came on. Others moved around. Other things happened. People stood in other places. Nothing really changed.
The resting of Wayne Rooney will look like a piece of hubris now. His name was chanted by the fans in the first half and England’s captain did introduce some urgency. Perhaps the decision to rest him will be vindicated at some later date, though those later dates are a bit further away now.
England will rattle on. One or two pieces clicked. Jamie Vardy, Nathaniel Clyne and Jordan Henderson did well. Loyalty to Jack Wilshere was a good thing but he is just not fit, sharp or ready He had a really horrible game here. That is more an issue of styling, though. The real failure in the past two years is the absence of any actual growth, the settling in of a spine, a way of playing culled from Hodgson’s sifting and sorting.
Saint-Étienne was a humid, feverish place before kick-off, England’s travelling support swelling the squares and filling the town with an undeniably authentic tournament feel. Don’t take me home, they sang, please don’t take me home. Really? Are you sure? Because for all the froth on the periphery, not a lot seems to be happening here beyond an oddly angsty drift towards an ending.
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