So, when does the hypothetical become reality? When does the rhetorical question become a serious one? When do England contemplate dropping Joe Hart?
If not now, then never. In four games at Euro 2016, the Manchester City keeper faced 11 shots on target; he conceded four of them. After allowing Kolbeinn Sigthorsson’s timid strike to pass through him, the 29-year-old will almost certainly “front up” (he did) and show his ‘passion’, his ‘desire’ and his ‘determination’ to perform in the aftermath. It will matter little.
“He’s made amends for that mistake earlier,” said Glenn Hoddle as Ragnar Sigurdsson’s overhead kick hit the keeper, who didn’t actually have to move; the effort was straight at him. It did not make amends for his mistake against Russia, nor his mistake against Wales, nor his crucial mistake on Monday evening. Fraser Forster is waiting in the wings, and Jack Butland will join him when he returns from injury.
For a player who, by his own admission, “hasn’t had anything to do in the whole tournament”, Hart has done more damage to England’s prospects than any other individual. But boy, does he sing that national anthem proudly.
There is the Kyle Walker we all know and love: The Kyle Walker who will gladly stand idly by as the player he is marking strolls into the penalty area to score an equaliser; the Kyle Walker who will throw a lazy boot at the ball in the hope of finding a teammate, but succeed only in returning possession to the opposition; the Kyle Walker whose attacking threat, conclusively nullified for the first time this summer, does not outweigh the uncertainty, panic and nervousness he instils on his side of the defence.
Thank the lord that the Tottenham right-back, along with his captain and his teammate and leading striker, were afforded such a long rest after the Wales victory. It did them the world of good.
Certainly not the worst player in England white, but still an integral part of a defence which conceded twice. Smalling and central defensive partner Gary Cahill won 19 headers between them; Iceland won 16 altogether. But while Sigthorsson, Sigurdsson and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson won fewer aerial battles, they most certainly won the war.
Earlier on Monday, Italy cancelled out the considerable attacking threat posed by European champions Spain. Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli were all impeccable for the Azzurri, who had been expertly coached by Antonio Conte. Something tells me the future Chelsea manager will struggle to inspire Cahill, so easily out-manoeuvred by Sigthorsson for Iceland’s second, to similar commanding defensive displays.
On an evening of abject failure, the Tottenham left-back excelled in not being that bad. He made the joint-highest amount of tackles of any England player (three), made more interceptions than any of his teammates (three), and he ran loads.
One of our three best players in the group stages; one of our poorest performers, of which there was an enviable selection, in the knock-outs. Much as he did for Tottenham this past season, Dier benefits from playing in a side which tends to dominate possession and spend the majority of games in the opposition’s half. Whether the 22-year-old was caught off guard by Iceland’s positive first-half approach or not is impossible to decide, but the defensive midfielder was a notable passenger before his half-time substitution. Partially susceptible for Sigthorsson’s goal, and was otherwise bypassed completely.
There are many types of central midfielder: There is the defensive midfielder; there is the box-to-box midfielder; there is the midfielder who dictates the tempo of his side’s play; there is the goalscoring midfielder; there is N’Golo Kante, who is in a realm by himself.
Which does Rooney fit into? On the basis of his performances against Russia and Wales, the 30-year-old was supposedly the orchestrator – the one who dictates play. He did relatively well in those games, not extraordinary well, but well enough. But the experiment of Rooney in midfield turned fatal in Nice.
Do not doubt just how poor Rooney was on Monday. The Manchester United ‘midfielder’ was abhorrent – indecisive in possession, non-existent in defence and wasteful in attack. Only four England starters registered a lower passing accuracy, and four teammates created more chances. His lack of incision was evident as England were made to chase the game for long periods. Take away his party trick of launching a 30-yard cross-field ball to a waiting full-back, and what does he bring to the team? On an evening which has guaranteed its place in England infamy, the captain very much led by example.
In the first half, we saw glimpses of the bright and lively Alli from his breakthrough season at Tottenham. He linked up neatly with Daniel Sturridge, almost struck the target with a delightful effort on 15 minutes, and played two excellent balls to the on-rushing Sturridge. In the second half, Alli was not immune to England’s inexplicable stage fright. The 20-year-old struggled to have an impact, but looked the likeliest to instigate a breakthrough. Having said that, he was not up against much.
The opening five minutes encapsulated another perfect Sturridge performance. The Liverpool striker always made himself available, almost demanding possession from the kick-off. He proceeded to run into the nearest defender. Then, on three minutes, he played a wonderful ball into Raheem Sterling, who won England’s penalty. From there, the 26-year-old replicated club teammate Adam Lallana’s clever interchanges and nifty flicks, but unfortunately none of the chances that had fallen to his benched compatriot in earlier games came his way. He is infuriating, but he often provides the biggest threat.
“What the f*** was that?” was the simple response from my dear partner, an avid non-football fan, as Harry Kane blasted a well-placed free-kick horribly wide in the second half. From a woman so used to almost daily disappointment, the sight of the Tottenham striker squandering another goalscoring opportunity in this tournament still managed to elicit such a withering critique. After finishing as the Premier League’s Golden Boot winner, the 22-year-old was supposed to spearhead England’s charge into the latter stages of this summer. The system can only go so far to explain what a letdown he has been.
“Tonight, the value of Sterling crashed to a record low.”
“Decision to recall Sterling a complete dud.”
“Sterling in decline all week.”
Few can vilify a player quite like the English public; then again, the quotes above are from members of the media. The script on Raheem Sterling has already been written: Overvalued, overrated, and should be thrown overboard.
Of course, the same people who will criticise Sterling in their post-match reports will make only a passing mention of his contribution to winning the penalty through which England opened the scoring. They will not find a scapegoat in Rooney, or in Hart, or in Kane – three players who performed considerably worse than the winger in Nice, two of whom have been worse during the competition as a whole. No, they will find a scapegoat in the Manchester City man, then join the nation in unison as we wonder why a 21-year-old who has not decided his own transfer fee is struggling to comprehend the overwhelming and often unnecessary criticism he faces.
Was Sterling brilliant against Iceland? No. Was any England player? No bloody way. But his pace, the very reason he was restored to the starting line-up, created problems early on, only for the opposition to figure out how to counter his main asset. It is no coincidence that, despite being substituted before the hour mark, he was fouled more often than any other player on the pitch (four times). But minds have already been made regarding Sterling, who was undeniably not the most culpable individual on Monday evening. He faces an uphill battle in changing them.
JACK WILSHERE (on for Dier, 45)
At 2-1 down, and facing ignominious defeat and a certain end to his spell as manager, Roy Hodgson was tasked with making a decisive change. The man who would rescue his and his country’s fortunes? Jack Wilshere. The same Jack Wilshere who was so inconsequential and lacklustre against Slovakia. That Jack Wilshere.
To the Arsenal midfielder’s credit, he was not quite as bad as he was in that final group game. But he was not much better. The 24-year-old’s control escaped him on more than one occasion, and his passing was often haphazard. He created a goalscoring opportunity for Kane, but few were stunned that a midfielder short of match fitness could not have an influence on the game.
JAMIE VARDY (on for Sterling, 60)
‘Come on Vardy, make something happen,’ tweeted Gary Lineker upon the Leicester striker’s introduction just before the hour mark. The BBC presenter missed perhaps the most important aspect of the 29-year-old’s game: Vardy does not make things happen, people make things happen for him, and he capitalises. On an evening where England struggled to create chances for Kane, for Sturridge, for Sterling and for Rooney, Vardy understandably struggled. Kane played him through on goal at one stage, but the electric pace which so attracted Arsene Wenger was countered by an eye-catching combination of brute Icelandic force and impeccable defending.
MARCUS RASHFORD (on for Rooney, 87)
Had Hodgson introduced Rashford instead of Vardy with half an hour remaining, England’s fortunes may have been a little different. The Manchester United teenager made the indelible impression on the attack which Wilshere and the Leicester forward were intended to. He attacked the defence, looked to break into the area and, most importantly, looked to make things happen. He was on the pitch for six minutes, and completed the joint-most dribbles of any player (three). If anyone will embark on the short return journey from France to England with their head held high, it will be the 18-year-old.