Hodgson had caught the train from Chantilly into Gare de Nord and, according to the Football Association, went sightseeing with his assistant, Ray Lewington. Yet the England manager decided against going to Iceland’s game against Austria at Stade de France, passing up the opportunity to see for himself his side’s next opponents.
Instead, Hodgson will be relying on television footage and various scouting reports as England’s management and players try to make sense of the unexpected football story of a nation with a population not much bigger than Barnet, a national stadium with the same capacity as the Keepmoat, Doncaster, and, until the last couple of weeks, absolutely no history of playing in major football tournaments.
Iceland will certainly be unorthodox opponents now England are in the section of the draw that features Spain, Italy, France and Germany, with 20 major tournament wins between them, as opposed to the half with no previous record of competition success. Yet Hodgson, one imagines, will have been grateful for the late, dramatic winner from Arnor Ingvi Traustason that removed the threat of England encountering Portugal in the first knockout round. Nobody connected with England wanted to find out, as Hungary had done, what a hare-brained theory it was to believe the sport should no longer be in thrall of Cristiano Ronaldo, superstar.
England’s opponents in the Stade de Nice certainly cannot be underestimated after going unbeaten through Group F, flicking their noses at Ronaldo in the process, and boasting a qualifying record that included wins, home and away, against Holland, helping account for the absence of Oranje in France. Iceland are clearly having fun, revelling in their status as the smallest nation ever to reach a major tournament, and England’s players could be forgiven for feeling apprehensive if they think about the orchard’s worth of rotten fruit that would be flung in their direction should it go badly.
Iceland, to recap, were 133rd in Fifa’s world rankings four years ago: the position currently occupied by Vietnam, sandwiched by Burundi and Turkmenistan. They have since gone up 100 places under the management of Lars Lagerback, the 67-year-old who was appointed on the back of five major tournaments with Sweden. Yet it has not been an entirely seamless success story. Iceland lost three successive matches earlier this year against the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Denmark and, for a while, it looked like they might emulate their 2007-08 low of five in a row to Latvia, Liechtenstein, Denmark, Belarus and Malta.
What is also very clear is that England will be facing another side that packs defence, allows the opposition to have the majority of the ball and relies on organisation, structure and the ability to make the most of set pieces. Even when they beat the Dutch at the 15,000-capacity Laugardalsvöllur in October 2014, Iceland had only 26% of possession and it has been the same pattern in their three Group F matches. Against Portugal they had 34%. Lagerback’s men managed 33% against Hungary and 37% facing Austria. Attempts at goal? That would be 62-21 in favour of their opponents.
England will need to show a more creative edge than they managed in the goalless draw against Slovakia that has left them looking enviously at the list of opponents Wales, the team who finished above them in Group B, could face in the knockout rounds. For England, it could conceivably be a quarter-final against France, with Germany, Spain or Italy potentially waiting in the semi-finals. They missed Portugal by a matter of seconds and it is not difficult to understand why Hodgson’s team selection against Slovakia, giving six players their first starts of the tournament, has troubled senior figures at the Football Association and led to allegations of England’s manager making life unnecessarily difficult for his side.
Hodgson’s decision not to watch Iceland in person, despite spending the day in Paris, also seems unusual when it is commonly accepted among managers that they get a much better view of teams from being at games rather than watching on television. To that effect, Hodgson will be heavily reliant in the next few days on Andy Scoulding, the FA’s video analyst, who attended the match and will now put together various clips so England’s players can learn about their opponents. Hodgson’s men would have been familiar with Ronaldo; it might need some revision in Chantilly to discover the strengths and weaknesses of Traustason and all the other unlikely heroes in Icelandic colours.
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