We will make someone pay for this.
As post-match obiter dicta go Roy Hodgson’s attempt to instil some optimism after the goalless draw with Slovakia isn’t quite up there with We flippin’ murdered ’ em; the affectionately-mocked head coach verdict after England’s cricketers’ drew with the mighty Zimbabwe in Bulawayo 20 years ago. Still, it might have been best for Hodgson to offer more of a dead bat in Saint-Etienne. The retort is obvious enough. Spot-on, Roy. Someone will pay. Most likely England in the quarter-finals against France in Paris. Who’s picking up this tab? You are, Group B second-placers, you are.
Yet with a little distance there is a more moderate side to this. Even for those of us frustrated by England’s strangulated progress through a moderate group, the lack of grooved combinations, the selection so far of five different teams for six halves of football, there is still plenty of hope. Tournament football is a business of sudden tides and currents. England have started stodgily and finished well before. Group B is done, unlamented, a forgotten boredom, in Philip Larkin’s phrase (he was talking about Coventry). But the wheels are still turning. The ride goes on. After Coventry comes Nice and maybe even Paris.
One thing is certain. At some point the pressure will alter for England, the game will open up. A moment will arrive to be seized, however fleeting. And Hodgson is right to water the green shoots, tune out the white noise and take what he can for what will be an entirely different test in the second stage of this two-part tournament. Here they are then. England, Euro 2016. Reasons to be cheerful: part one.
For a start, Hodgson is right, England did dominate many aspects of their three games. Against Wales they had 64% possession, up there with England’s highest figure in any modern tournament game. So far England’s three goals have come from a total of 64 shots, if not exactly at, then at least towards the opposition goal. Against Slovakia they had a 29 shots, 12 more than Spain in their 3-0 defeat of Turkey.
You can of course draw what you like from such stats. Spain played like a team with both a cutting edge and strength in reserve. If Eric Dier made the same number of passes against Slovakia as Andrés Iniesta did in his sublime playmaker turn against Turkey, he was still, if anything, a luxury on Monday night, holding nothing, covering imaginary pockets of space against opponents whose chief goal was simply not to concede.
On the plus side, the players have never given up or stopped seeking to spark off one another through any of this. The only goals conceded have been from a late header and a free-kick, both of which might have been kept out by Joe Hart at his best. Things might have been very different had the ball bounced another way, had Jamie Vardy been able to slot past Matus Kozacik given a free run on to Jordan Henderson’s Pirlo-esque punt over the top. Details. Small margins. A narrative nudged another way.
Except, of course, these details don’t exist in a vacuum. If England were unable to find the right run, read the fine movements, finagle a pocket of space, then this is not chance or bad luck. Rather it is the difference between a group of footballers attempting to get to know one another, to forge new bonds on the hoof; and the kind of team where this happens though familiarity and learned, shared movements.
The emergence of new players has forced a certain on-the-hoof quality. Dele Alli, Dier and Vardy, late-coming starters in Saint-Etienne, were all on the fringes a year ago. But restlessness over the last six England games has been a loss of certainty at just the wrong moment, an unravelling when ends should be tied. Perhaps the group stage slog will help in this regard. Patterns have been tested, a certain fluidity accommodated.
Plus the good news is England are not alone. It has been a stop-start tournament generally. Spain have looked convincing, Italy will be hard to beat. Otherwise there is no obvious breakaway pack. In many ways the wider stodginess is enforced. This correspondent has been at three 0-0 draws in three days, at the end of each of which one team has celebrated wildly, delighted to have closed the game out. This isn’t Hodgson’s doing. It is the work of another tinkerer, Michel Platini. The man who gave us a thrilling modern group-stage Euros in 1984 has now given us a slightly bloodless expanded version, the prospect of progressing via three draws cutting off the high attacking notes. For now, that is.
Another point of encouragement is that what England really want to do is counterattack, or at least to attack with speed into space. This hasn’t been possible so far. Against Slovakia Vardy touched the ball only 20 times as England sent in hopeful crosses towards a striker who was simply an ill-fitting tool, a pair of scissors trying to stitch a button.
Against better teams, the theory goes, England will be able to attack to their strengths. The corollary of which is that other, as yet unprobed, weaknesses will emerge. The defence has only really been pressed for 20 minutes, during which it conceded to Russia. Hodgson might now suggest England’s new resilience switching between different shapes and personnel is a bonus, using the group stage as a handy piece of planning. Either way the real test of this team awaits.
A similar process applies to the anguish after Saint-Etienne over a lack of width and wing-play. There are a few generic midfielder-shaped footballers in England’s squad, a kind of endless-baguette production line of similar-shaped crusty central batons, all. Andros Townsend, for his sheer simplicity, his jink, his directness might have made a difference in Saint-Etienne, as might a more roughhousing centre forward, some Carroll or Deeney, the pair of muddy wellies you keep in the boot for a rough day.
Yet in the next round this need may well just evaporate. England are unlikely to find themselves pressing stubborn, defensive-minded opponents much longer. Instead, what might work next, in an altered climate, is the key.
There are some definite outfield starters. The back four against Wales, plus Dier. Wayne Rooney, Alli and probably Adam Lallana – for the nous and touch and steadiness – in midfield. And up front probably still Daniel Sturridge, whose sheer strolling confidence and lovely, bold movement has been a tonic.
Also on the to-do list: attacking set pieces. To date, corners and free-kicks have been rota’d around. England have a training pitch – and time. Somebody needs to get hold of these and do them properly. Dead-ball accuracy will decide games in the knockout rounds.
What does seem likely is there probably won’t in the end, as Hodgson knows as well as anyone, be an avalanche of punitive goals. Most matches will be won on fine margins, passages of adaptability and sustained opportunism, when the experimental systems of the last 10 days might make more sense. England will face different rhythms in Euro 2016 part two, a game a little different from the games just gone. The task before them is still, as it was before the whirl of recent selections, to put into place the details that make the details.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010