England did not fail to win their group because Hodgson made changes for the Slovakia game.
They did not make ‘six changes’ for that game in any meaningful sense.
There was no huge risk or gamble to the changes he did make, in any footballing sense: the risk was an emotional risk, a PR risk. And it backfired.
There could be no other back page story: we would hear how by changing the team Hodgson blew our chance to win the group against a mediocre Slovakia that an unchanged England would surely have beaten.
The problem is that this story spins both the usual reactionary bollocks surrounding England and a wholly inadequate analysis of why England got 5 points in three games despite beating the winners of the group, and dominated but failed to achieve in both other games.
It is arguable that England have been guilty of three key crimes so far: failing to convert possession into goals, lapses of concentration at the back leading directly to conceding goals from nothing, and failing to settle on an optimal XI.
The first, failing to convert possession into goals, is the worst issue, the hardest to resolve, and the most widely shared responsibility. It is also a result of England’s opponents not being stupid. England’s key weapons are pace, power and their direct running up front. With these weapons England tore through qualifying to the extent that we were among the pre-tournament favourites. Russia, Wales and Slovakia all wisely dropped off, packed the space, and challenged England to use guile and a slower buildup to attack. This a good approach because it nullifies England’s key weapons and, to be fair, England are indeed relatively guileless in possession: we demonstrably struggle to construct slow build up play. We are not built for it because our players are not that good at it, with some isolated exceptions in Jack Wilshire, who is wholly ring rusty (and as such should not even be in the squad in my view), and Wayne Rooney, who since his loss of pace has developed the necessary skills pretty well. This is why I think Rooney must play, he brings a range of passing and vision that no one else does. Up front, only Daniel Sturridge really has this in his locker, the rest are direct attackers. This isn’t a bad thing per se, it’s just England’s relative weakness at the more tactical side of attacking football that comes hand in hand with being the side we are. We’re not as good at ‘breaking teams down’ as we are at exploting space at speed. It is a collective failing and it’s why we’re good, but not that good. We wish teams “would attack us a bit” so it would “open up”. The problem there of course, is that only teams that know they are good enough to beat us attack us. We benefit when opponents underestimate us. They rarely do. Everyone knows about England’s strengths. They aren’t stupid.
The second is a result of the basic good-to-averageness of our defenders, compounded by poor individual moments. Joe Hart is our best keeper and he nonetheless occasionally simply gifts goals to opponents out of nothing. Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling are our best defenders, and they are both big, strong, quick, great in the air, good tacking, ball playing centre halves – who are also prone to making poor decisions under low pressure when their minds seem to wander. They lack the intense concentration and game-reading of top defenders. Watch Cahill for a while and you can visibly see him catching up with the game rather than planning ahead in the way top defenders like Mats Hummels, Leonardo Bonucci, or Gerard Pique do. “Hey a second ball in the box. Shall I take a touch? Better had now, so I can get into position for the out ball. Oops, a bit heavy. And their forward’s a bit close! Control it Gary! Get this pass away… phew. Just.” Our fullbacks are similarly good players and useful attacking weapons with their good pace and direct running, but none of Danny Rose, Ryan Bertrand, Nathaniel Clyne or Kyle Walker are automatic selections. They will do a job, tactically England’s 433 makes us solid in wide positions, and Walker has played well so far to be fair, but our defensive unit is fundamentally average and error prone. Eric Dier is talked about as our most important player because we so desperately need someone disciplined in the position he plays shielding the defence, which he has done very well indeed. As international sides don’t get the time to train that club sides do, or the ability to buy better players, it’s not unusual for their defences to be a bit ropey but ours feels ropier than it ought to be. We are hardly Italy, where four of their five defenders happen to be both world class and Juventus players. We concede shoddy goals randomly: Russia had nothing and scored to snatch a draw due to a single calamitous defensive lapse. Wales had next to nothing and gave us a scare due to a single calamitous defensive lapse. Slovakia had nothing whatsoever and still very nearly scored due to a single calamitous defensive lapse.
The third is Hodgson’s responsibility and his team selection throughout has been questionable. So far he has only got it just right for 45 minutes, in the second half of the Wales game. But is he wrong to tinker? Because in fact, England drew with Russia then scraped a win against Wales after… changing it up. Vardy should start as he is visibly fired up, and Kane should not as he is visibly knackered. The Wales game showed this, and everyone watching agreed. Stirling arguably should start, but he looks out of sorts, so Sturridge who is always a threat arguably should get the nod ahead of him, again as per the Wales game. Hodgson received credit for subbing these players for Wales which turned the game around after England were booed off at half time. Both of these players then started against Slovakia in a game we are now told was Hodgson changing a ‘winning’ team. In reality we scraped a last minute win against Wales in a very similar way to how we failed to against Slovakia, and Russia too. Selection is not really the issue here. But what of the four other changes, then: both the fullbacks, and two of the midfielders. Clyne for Rose is neither here nor there. They are similar. Neither has done much. Bertrand for Walker is, in my view, a mistake. Walker carries more threat and may have helped more versus Slovakia than Bertrand did. But did do that he versus Russia or Wales? No. So it’s a debatable point. Wilshire for Rooney was in my view a disaster. The man’s not fit. And Henderson for Alli didn’t work out either, as Henderson went and had a shocker. Some people say he played well. He did not. He played ‘well’ in the sense that Stirling played ‘well’ against Russia. Seeming to be everywhere, trying his best, failing to execute to the required standard to win the game.
Personally I think all three results are a combination of these points. An inability to pick apart deep defensive teams, conceding cheap goals out of nowhere for no good reason, and inconsistency of selection.
It’s quite doubtful that any England XI would have had what it took to beat that specific Slovakia team, who set out to play the way they did. Hodgson can’t stop Joe Hart from going to sleep. The coaches can’t make that back four into Italy.
All in all, England have played quite well, and got quite poor results. They’ve been quite lacklustre in the final third faced with packed defences. They’ve been ropey at the back. And they’re through with a scrappy win and two sickeningly annoying draws. That’s about right.
But let’s all pile on the manager for the sorta most visible thing that happened anyway, right? We need a narrative!