England’s failure to beat mediocre Slovakia in Saint-Etienne – as well as Group B’s weak link Russia – leaves them and manager Roy Hodgson badly exposed at Euro 2016.
The 68-year-old’s side needed victory over Slovakia on Monday to ensure they topped the group to map out a more comfortable route into the knockout phase of the tournament.
Hodgson, in one of the most bizarre moves conducted by an England manager at a major tournament, chose this crucial moment to make six changes to his side.
England, without captain Wayne Rooney in their starting line-up, could only draw 0-0 to leave Wales as the beneficiaries as a 3-0 win over Russia saw them take top spot in the group.
So how could England and Hodgson get it so badly wrong?
Hodgson’s gamble fails
Once Hodgson made the astonishing decision to rest six players from the England side that beat Wales, two things had to happen – they had to beat Slovakia and they had to finish top of their group. Neither came to pass.
What possessed the manager to effectively dismantle the side that finally gave England some momentum and impetus with that dramatic 2-1 victory over Wales will be known only to him and his coaching staff.
It was an experiment, but more of the sort conducted in the shed at the bottom of the garden rather than with any serious acknowledgement of the surroundings in which it was taking place.
Managers do, of course, rest players for final group games – when the job is done, when the points are secured, when there is nothing riding on the outcome.
They do not do it when there is still the chance a failure to win could have serious ramifications for England’s chances as they move deeper into Euro 2016. If the worst case scenario had unfolded, Hodgson might have been keeping players back for a match that was not going to happen.
For a manager of Hodgson’s experience, it was an unnecessarily high-risk strategy and one that was tempting the fates, who duly obliged.
England drew. Wales won – and if England do negotiate the last-16 game in Nice against Portugal, Iceland, Hungary or Austria on Monday, the smart money will be on them facing hosts France in the last eight in Paris.
It almost smacked of arrogance that England, and more specifically Hodgson, felt he could change his side on such a mass scale and sail to top spot in the group. This was no time to take risks and yet Hodgson blindly walked into a trap of his own making. It also took Slovakia too lightly, an error a manager at this level should not make.
There seemed no logic behind the move and it appeared to go against every aspect of Hodgson’s well-versed managerial ethos. Take nothing for granted. Belt and braces.
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Instead, Hodgson chose to rest Rooney, England’s best player at Euro 2016, and Kyle Walker, their second best player at Euro 2016.
Rooney was thrown on as part of the cavalry charge after 55 minutes as the experiment started to unravel. Just 24 hours after giving his fulsome backing to Hodgson, his face – of the thunderous variety – at the final whistle and after the game told a different story.
He has been one of the stand-out performers of England’s indifferent opening games. If Hodgson was compiling a list of players to rest, Rooney’s name should have been right at the bottom.
No-one can say with 100% confidence that England would have won with a full-strength side. The problem for Hodgson is that the wisdom will be that they would – which is why he may yet end up agonising over the decision he took in Saint-Etienne.
Of course, everyone could be laughing about this in three weeks when England have won Euro 2016 – but there was not much chuckling to be heard as their team bus pulled out in the Massif Central night on its way out of Saint-Etienne.
Hodgson feels the heat
England manager Hodgson was already under the microscope after FA chairman Greg Dyke underlined the general thinking by telling BBC Radio 5 live’s Sportsweek programme that his future, with his contract running out, would be shaped by events at Euro 2016.
Dyke will not be involved in this decision but he is unlikely to have been too far off message by suggesting a decent quarter-final defeat would be regarded as reasonable, a semi-final loss as success.
Hodgson swatted away the inevitable enquiries but what he did not need was a result such as this that meant England only finished second in a group they would have expected to top, and now face that hazardous route that may or may not lead to a contract renewal.
The manager’s post-match demeanour was defiant, although his claim that he had only made four changes rather than six because Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge came on as substitutes and finished against Wales was farcical.
“The six changes amuses me,” Hodgson said. “We finished the game against Wales with Vardy and Sturridge up front and people said that was positive. And now it suddenly becomes six with those two starting.”
Hodgson suggested someone would be on the wrong end of hiding from England soon.
“We are not doomed yet. We’re not doomed to penalties. We’re not doomed to not take our chance,” he said.
“Soon we will make someone pay. We will score goals one day. The way we are playing we are not frightened of anybody.”
For England and Hodgson, however, the reverse is true. No-one will fear England either and Hodgson needs to find that crucial factor to ease the pressure.
Campaign of confusion
Hodgson’s bungled team selection was another example of the muddled thinking and lack of a clear plan that appears to have overcome England since they landed in France.
In England’s first game against Russia in Marseille, Rooney was reinvented as a central midfield player while Raheem Sterling came in from the cold with Vardy dropped.
Hodgson’s concern was so great against Wales that his reaction to going behind was to throw strikers at Wales, namely Vardy, Sturridge and Marcus Rashford, until they cracked.
It would be churlish not to give Hodgson credit for that win, chaotic though it was, but this time he deserves the criticism that will come his way.
He removed key players from crucial parts of his team, such as full-backs Walker and Danny Rose and most of all Rooney, when England should have been throwing everything at Slovakia to get the win they needed.
England’s tactics in France seem to be lacking in structure and certainty. This was another example.
Wilshere pick shows misplaced loyalty
Hodgson fell into a trap that befell his predecessor Sven Goran-Eriksson when he picked Jack Wilshere for England’s Euro 2016 squad.
Wilshere, 24, cut a sad figure when he was taken off after 55 minutes and replaced by Rooney following a performance that confirmed suspicions rather than raised hopes.
Arsenal’s gifted midfield man tried everything he could to revive his sphere of influence on England but he looked exactly what he currently is – a player short of match sharpness, off the pace and lacking the fitness required at this elite level.
This is not his fault. He played 141 minutes over three games for Arsenal last season but such is Hodgson’s admiration for Wilshere he simply could not travel to France without him.
Wilshere is a fierce competitor and may turn things around but his selection current looks an indulgent mistake of the sort Eriksson made when he took David Beckham to the World Cup in Japan in 2002 and Rooney to Germany four years later.
Beckham and Rooney were never at their best and Wilshere’s plight is even more acute.
Wilshere will be back. Hodgson will hope it is in France but the evidence of Saint-Etienne suggests it will be later.
What next for England
England had been aiming for a last-16 game in Paris on Saturday – now they will be off to the south of France to Nice to face whoever finishes second in Group F, Iceland, Portugal, Austria or Hungary.
If they negotiate that, it looks increasingly like they will have to step into an emotional Paris environment to face the hosts in the quarter-finals.
Not easy – but this is a problem of Hodgson’s own making and one he may now feel he could have done better to avoid.
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