Given that previous incarnations of the national team at major tournaments have been prone to treating the ball like an unpinned hand-grenade, it seems odd that this latest version is being picked on for having finally worked out how to hang on to the thing. It’s the kind of criticism that was flung at Spain in 2012 until Vicente del Bosque’s side went on and won the European Championship. Again. But that’s not to say England will follow suit. Far from it. There is a legitimate concern to be found if you pick apart the carping.
Perhaps one player more than any other is emblematic of the problem afflicting new England: Adam Lallana, an incredibly adept technical footballer with endless energy whom many would argue has been among Hodgson’s better performers in the group stages. In the Guardian’s ratings, only Eric Dier rates higher than him in scores for England players who have appeared in all three games. Lallana seems to have received more of the ball in his three Euro 2016 appearances to date than he did in his 23 England caps preceding them. He has been a magnet for it. It’s no surprise then that he is of Spanish descent. His incredible pressing and willingness to take the ball where there appears to be no space and perform bendy escape acts to keep possession are qualities more often appreciated in Iberia.
But for all this good work there is a touch of the Tony Daley about him: that maddening tendency to be so obviously busy but lack an end product. He’s scored no goals in 26 games for England. So the regular sight of his rueful face being beamed back from France after miscued shots against Russia, Wales and Slovakia was hardly unexpected. “I feel it’s coming – keep working hard and it will come,” he said of his trouble in front of goal after the Slovakia match. But will it? Really?
In the Premier League, Lallana is not known for being a regular contributor in the goals-for tally either. He’s scored 19 in four years, nine of those in his stellar season at Southampton in 2013-14. But maybe Hodgson was never expecting goals from him. He’s a creator isn’t he? Well, not quite. There were moments in the early stages of the Russia match when Lallana appeared to be the most likely to find the key to open the flood-gates. Instead, his influence waned as England’s confidence went down the plug-hole late on.
He’s yet to make an assist at Euro 2016. No shame in that. Many other lauded schemers have not. But perhaps Hodgson shouldn’t hold his breath. He’s averaged five in the past four Premier League seasons. His dribbles, such a vital part of his game when he was at Southampton, have largely been fruitless. He is a player who, for the past two seasons, has been followed around by the F-word: frustrating.
In the second half of last season he appeared to grow in confidence under Jürgen Klopp, seemingly getting the effectiveness of gegenpressing when done properly in a way other team-mates did not, chipping in with a few goals and developing into an integral part of Liverpool’s attacking unit. But for all that, there was still a feeling among some fans at Anfield that Lallana was perhaps a cog in a functioning unit that could be replaced and improved on. Meanwhile, a player who doesn’t appear to have ticked the right boxes for Klopp, Joe Allen, has been an outstanding creative force in the Wales midfield, perhaps thanks to Chris Coleman’s understanding of Allen’s one standout ability: his passing.
Sometimes it is hard to pinpoint why it is that a player is not effective. Everything about Lallana suggests he should be. He has a lovely first touch and can ghost past players with a flick of the boot and a lithe step inside. He has an even temperament too, rarely wastes a pass, works harder than most and gets into good positions on a regular basis. Perhaps he’s not helped by the shades of grey over what his best position is. Is he a midfielder or an attacker? And unlike Allen, it is not easy to say what his one outstanding attribute is. Maybe he is too complicated a footballer, not simplistic enough, to be a truly effective England player.
It’s why the more uncomplicated physical attributes of Jamie Vardy may be preferred to Lallana’s more intricate skillset in the England front three against Iceland. But if the Liverpool player does keep his place, expect him to be a fluid and functioning part of Hodgson’s team; tricky, indefatigable, seemingly everywhere and a surefire seven out of 10. Just don’t expect him to be a matchwinner.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010