* Giggling, tingling, shaking and smiling. Football can be a rotten game to follow at times, when your team is trailing 1-0 to a rival and playing sluggish, uninspiring football. Yet it also has the power to change like the sunshine and showers of April, lifting you from your gloom into a euphoria higher than you could ever have expected. This was one of those days.
England were rotten during the first half, crippled by their own self-doubt and nerves, frightened to push forward and frightened of failure. But those final minutes, those last desperate seconds, a group of young men might just have become a team. When Daniel Sturridge’s poked effort hit the back of Wayne Hennessey’s net, all of the negativity was forgotten. For one moment there was no talk of what might have been, or what might still be; we were lost in the majesty of what was happening now.
For those obsessed by the game, football provides enough joy in its ebbs and flows to keep us sated and addicted. Yet it is in these moments of wonder that the game moves on to a higher place. David Platt vs Belgium; Stuart Pearce’s penalty vs Spain; David Beckham’s free-kick vs Greece; Sturridge’s winner vs Wales.
That was the single best second of supporting England in 15 years. If you didn’t react like the lead in Fever Pitch, hugging inanimate objects and screaming at the top of your voice as if enjoying a footballing climax, hang your head in shame. Imagine not liking this wonderful, captivating sport.
* The first proper conclusion must go to Roy Hodgson. We really doubted him. We were losing faith.
Some may say that Hodgson’s substitutions were only as a result of poor initial decision-making, but frankly that’s a load of old b*llocks. There were few surprises in England’s team selection, but to make such a definitive move to change the game as early as half-time was inspired. It also jarred with Hodgson’s reputation for delayed reaction.
To have both of Hodgson’s half-time substitutes score was wonderful justification for his balls-out reaction to the first-half under-performance. To then bring on Marcus Rashford for his tournament debut to chase a winner surprised everyone. The manager deserves huge credit for maximising the mood.
Also, it’s one thing making these changes when you’ve had six months or a year in the job, but Hodgson’s neck was on the line; this was his job at stake. It was the biggest half-time of his managerial career, and he got things absolutely right. Apologies for the noise, I’m just struggling with indigestion after that sizeable slice of humble pie.
* England were unchanged, with Hodgson focusing on the positive performance against Russia rather than the disappointing sting in the tail. In truth, there were very few decisions to make.
The only possible alternatives to the Russia starting XI was to drop Raheem Sterling for Jack Wilshere with Dele Alli playing on the left-hand side, although in a less attacking position than Sterling. The only other likely option was to see Harry Kane dropped for Sturridge, the Liverpool player playing centrally in a 4-3-3 formation as he had done in the 2014 World Cup.
Kane has been quiet as an England starter, but Hodgson persevered with his first-choice striker. After a good team display in their opening game, the manager decided to avoid the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
* Chris Coleman, however, had other ideas. Although Gareth Bale scored Wales’ first goal against Slovakia, their superstar was actually relatively ineffective from open play, often isolated as the furthest player forward.
With match-winner Hal Robson-Kanu now fully fit, Coleman chose to move Bale into an attacking midfield role, in direct competition with Eric Dier. His remit was to isolate the Tottenham midfielder, dribbling at him from deep to cause England problems centrally.
Joe Ledley also returned to the starting XI after fully recovering from a broken leg sustained on May 7, a recuperation that sits on the edges of superhuman. Dave Edwards and Jonathan Williams dropped to the bench. Williams was excellent against Slovakia, but those are the breaks of an international tournament.
Finally, Wayne Hennessey came back into the side at the expense of Liverpool’s Danny Ward. Hennessey had suffered a back spasm on the morning of the Slovakia match and had not been risked.
* On Wednesday, I wrote a piece in which I worried about England’s response to the perceived injustice of Russia’s late equaliser on Saturday; the first half proved those worries to be valid.
England were sluggish in possession, playing similarly to Belgium did against Italy. Every counter-attack was slowed down, every player choosing to stop and pass the ball backwards rather than attacking his man. Player for player England are better than Wales, but every professional team is able to dig in and defend when the game is not stretched. England were making it easy for Chris Coleman’s team.
There was at least one positive to take from England’s first half: Kane is no longer England’s first-choice corner-taker. There was another negative to take from England’s first half: Kane’s free-kick effort was England’s worst shot since Geoff Thomas against France in 1992.
* That said, England could have had at least one first-half penalty. First Ben Davies pushed Alli in the back when the England midfielder was jumping to head the ball on the edge of the area. Alli chose to stay on his feet rather than go to ground, but the officials should still have spotted the misdemeanor.
Later in the half, there was an appeal as the ball struck Davies’ hand when he was attempting to clear his lines. The majority reaction on social media was that it was a penalty, but I’m a lot less convinced. The laws state:
‘Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with his hand or arm. The referee must take the movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand) and the distance between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball) into consideration.’
By that definition, I think a penalty would have been harsh. Davies was not looking at where the ball was going, and – although his arms were not by his side – they were hardly flailing wildly. Given that the ball first came off another part of his body, the officials got the decision right.
* When you play without verve or intensity, you invite the sucker punch. It came via that most reliable of sources, a Bale free-kick.
Don’t underestimate the role Robson-Kanu played in the goal, his willing running forcing Rooney to make a clumsy tackle 30 yards from goal. Bale’s set-up made it obvious that a shot was on the way, and he effected enough whip on his delivery to take the ball beyond Joe Hart. Suddenly England were in real trouble, and Bale had become Wales’ joint-top goalscorer at major tournaments, level with Ivor Allchurch.
* However, we have to talk about Hart. When the ball arrived at the England goalkeeper’s gloves, it was equidistant between post and the centre of the goal. This was not a shot guided expertly into the corner of the net, or curled into an unreachable part of the goal. It should have been a regulation save, either punched clear or tipped around the post.
If Hart was unsighted by his wall – and he did dive slightly late – then why on earth did he need one? Being able to have full sight of the ball as it came towards the goal would have been far more beneficial than the reality. It would also have allowed him to stand in the middle of the goal, with full reach to either side. When will defensive walls stop being a default?
Re Bale goal look at the wall. That's the biggest mistake by Hart, dont put one up. If he doesn't he can start in the MIDDLE of the goal 1/2
— Peter Schmeichel (@Pschmeichel1) June 16, 2016
So even if the ball is all over the place he can move quicker. Also the wall becomes a target only 10y away, gives better aim for Bale2/2
— Peter Schmeichel (@Pschmeichel1) June 16, 2016
* Faced with serious questions about his managerial future, Hodgson made the boldest of calls at half-time, bringing on Jamie Vardy and Sturridge for Sterling and Kane. If managerial spurs are earned in these clinch moments, Hodgson was making his claim to be seen as a manager who could influence proceedings.
It’s an opportune time to reflect on England’s possible starting XI against Slovakia, given the influence of Hodgson’s substitutions (and the fact that I’m quickly running out of conclusions). Sturridge and Vardy will surely both start, but in what formation?
Personally, I would take the opportunity to give a rest to Alli, who looked seriously leggy towards the end of the game. Vardy could start as a wide forward, although interchanging with Sturridge as a central striker. Lallana would stay on the right, with Wilshere brought into centre midfield with Rooney and Dier.
There are concerns about Vardy on the left (and I wouldn’t want him playing as a winger in the Sterling role), but when England attack with gusto as against Wales late on, the formation doesn’t matter too much. Players tend to interchange positions anyway: Rooney moving up, Vardy drifting centrally, Sturridge dropping deep and out wide to pick up possession. We can make it work.
* The biggest conclusion of the half-time substitutions is that Sterling has got a huge battle on his hands to alter his reputation in the eyes of England fans. He is the ultimate confidence player, and looks bereft of any belief. He was groaned at by England’s entire support when losing a 50/50 in his own half.
Not only does that hamper his ability in front of goal (he really should have opened the scoring after just a few minutes, but skewed the ball over the bar), but it also limits his appetite to take on his man. In effect, Sterling becomes a defensive winger, running forward and then passing the ball back.
Unfortunately, that is the opposite of Sterling’s skill set. If he’s not going to take on (and beat) his man, there is really very little point him being on the pitch.
* The changes made an instant difference, Wales happy to sit back and England enjoying an extended exercise of attack vs defence. With Robson-Kanu in a different postcode to the rest of his teammates, Dier and Rooney could all operate in Wales’ third of the pitch with the full-backs also pushed high. That allowed the other attacking players to fill the penalty area.
The goal came after just ten minutes. Sturridge collected the ball on the wide left of the area, and chose to chip the ball back across goal rather than attempting a shot. The cross eventually found the feet of Vardy in exactly the right place, the striker swivelling and bouncing the ball past Hennessey, who came close to a miraculous save.
However, the real assist goes to the officials. The goal had a stench of offside on first viewing, with plenty fooled until the first or second slow-motion replay. Only then did they realise that the ball had actually come off Ashley Williams rather than an England player. What an exceptional decision at a crunch time, matching the general quality of refereeing in this tournament.
* Can we talk about Kyle Walker now? One month ago, Nathaniel Clyne was England’s first-choice right-back, considered a safer pair of hands (feet?) in defence and capable of overlapping and attacking. In the four weeks since, Walker has made incredible progress. He has been one of England’s three best players in each of their last four games.
There is no doubt that Hodgson’s formation allows Walker to prosper. With Lallana happy to press high without the ball and drift infield with it, Walker has the opportunity to act as a winger when England are attacking. He has the pace to get back into position when possession is turned over, with Dier cutting off the danger at right-back if needs be.
Rooney actually attempted the most crosses of any player on the pitch, but most of those came from deep. Walker was second (with seven), but most of his were from the byline after taking on and beating Neil Taylor.
The only criticism of Walker is that he should take on his man more, rather than stopping and slowing down the game. When pace is your key asset, why limit it?
* If there was any player who did not deserve to be on the losing side, it was Aaron Ramsey. The Arsenal midfielder did the job of two or three in Wales’ midfield, and was the game’s best player. Ramsey’s place at Arsenal may well be under threat after the signing of Granit Xhaka but, if he can match his Euro 2016 form at domestic level, he still merits his place.
Ramsey made twice as many tackles as any other player on the pitch, and no player was fouled more often. He also had more touches than any other Welshman, demonstrating his tendency to drop deep to pick up the ball rather than becoming isolated in his advanced role.
This was not the Ramsey who drives forward with the ball and looks to get into the penalty area, but the well-drilled, feisty central midfielder that every manager in the world appreciates. That haircut has done the trick.
* Although he has scored two of Wales’ three goals at this tournament, is it okay to be a little disappointed by Bale’s impact in this tournament so far? Against Slovakia he was kept on the fringes of the game, regularly dispossessed. Against England, the same happened.
Moved into a deeper position by Coleman, Bale had 43 touches of the ball. However, his passing accuracy of 54.3% represents his inability to link up the play according to his manager’s need, regularly losing possession. Bale completed only 12 passes in his 90 minutes on the field. England were worried about him running at Dier, but Bale completed only four dribbles in the match.
This inability to impact upon open play is at least partly explained by Wales’ ‘parking the bus’ strategy. Against Russia, Coleman needs to find a way to make Bale the centre of attention.
* After the match, Chris Coleman spoke of his dejection at Wales’ late defeat.
“We’re gutted after today, absolutely devastated, but we’re going to bounce back for the next game. You can’t tell me that my players deserved that sucker punch. Their effort and courage was fantastic.”
That’s all very well, but Wales made their own bed in that second half and were then forced to lie in it. They sat back and invited England on, and failed to hold out for a draw. If that plan doesn’t work, and you concede a late goal, then you get exactly what you deserve. Just as England paid for not defending the cross in the final minute against Russia.
There is no doubting Wales’ “effort” or “courage”; it was the defensive resilience and Henneseey’s inability to stop the shot that let them down.
* There is only one place to finish, and I’ve already used far too many words. Just watch this, over and over again, and feel the tingles. The same against Slovakia, and England will top their group. Good old football.
Sturridge scores one and is involved in the other. World class player and some were questioning him going.https://t.co/cvdIXsIDMW
— MB (@MrBoywunder) June 16, 2016