A note to Joe Hart: Do your talking on the pitch, not in the tunnel.
“Get the ball. Move the f**king ball,” screamed England’s self-appointed captain as the teams lined up in France, ready to do battle. “Save the f**ing ball” was a notable omission from his rallying cry.
When Gareth Bale is standing over a dead ball, it does not take a psychic to predict his next move; he will shoot. But the Real Madrid forward’s effort, while it was struck relatively well, did not divert from its straight path. The free-kick was taken from a central position. It was around 35 yards out. Yet Hart, somehow, was beaten. The Manchester City looked more keen to make a camera save as opposed to simply upholding his end of the goalkeeping bargain. Again: save the f**king ball.
After his mistake against Russia, the pressure is truly heaped on Hart. The 29-year-old is regularly seen at the front when the battle lines are drawn, keen to showcase his passion and determination. But he must remember that he is a goalkeeper, not a mouthpiece or a motivational speaker.
“I have no clue why Joe Hart wanted a wall for that free-kick. There is no way Gareth Bale scores without the wall there,” said Oliver Kahn at half-time. If ever there was a reliable judge of character…
“What the f**k has happened to him?” asked Sarah Winterburn of Walker post-match. This was not an expression of anger after a mistake. No, this was a declaration of shock at the importance the defender has assumed in this side. The undoubted star against Russia was once more a tireless, brilliant outlet down England’s right-hand side. In a squad containing a striker who scored 25 goals this past Premier League season, the country’s record goalscorer and a winger valued at £49m by his club, the Tottenham defender is the most potent threat Roy Hodgson has at his disposal. He struggled against the exuberance of Aaron Ramsey in the early stages, but grew into the game with an undoubted confidence. Every attack went through the 26-year-old – which is actually quite a worrying thought at first – but the man of the match led by example. Neil Taylor will be waking up in cold sweats on Friday morning.
Russia had been restricted to two shots on target, of which they scored one through a set-piece. Wales were restricted to two shots on target, of which they scored one through a set-piece. In both games, Cahill did little wrong, but he is yet to record a clean sheet in this tournament. It is through little fault of his own. There was a vital block on a Gareth Bale effort after ten minutes. There was a crucial clearance from a Taylor cross on 41 minutes. He was a mere bystander during England’s second-half onslaught, but he also provided a threat going forward from corners and free-kicks.
From the man-mountain of Artem Dzyuba to the rather less pronounced threat of Hal Robson-Kanu. Whereas against Russia Smalling often looked on the verge of a mistake, the Manchester United centre-half was assured, comfortable and confident against Wales. His last-ditch tackle on Bale early in the second half was just as important as Jamie Vardy’s leveller or Daniel Sturridge’s winner. The 26-year-old made 14 clearances – at least five more than any other player – and almost found the breakthrough at the other end with a header from a Wayne Rooney corner.
Along with Walker, Rooney and Adam Lallana, Rose is the only player to have enjoyed a wholly positive opening two games. As effective as his club teammate was down the right, Rose replicated the threat on the opposite side, providing the necessary width upon which England would eventually build. While the former had able assistance from the impressive Lallana, Rose was shackled by Sterling, who notably struggled. But the 25-year-old stepped up to the challenge, expertly marshalling the left-hand side on his own. It might not be as easy as first thought for Luke Shaw to regain his starting place.
The hero in the opener was not quite as influential against Wales, but Dier still emerges with credit. He was England’s best player in the first half, covering the defence against the imminent threats of Bale and Ramsey. He also used possession wisely. In the second half, as the game plan changed, so did Dier’s performance. With the emphasis on attack, the Tottenham midfielder was more wasteful with the ball, with a late cross to a non-existent striker when England were chasing a winner attracting particular ire. The 22-year-old has been of the utmost importance to the progress of the national team thus far, but are his specific talents required for the full 90 minutes against Slovakia? Like his club teammates, he is in… *ahem*… dire need of a rest.
He registered more than double the amount of touches than the highest Wales player (103). He created six goalscoring chances (at least three more than any other player). He completed four dribbles (as many as Gareth Bale). Has Wayne Rooney finally found his home?
Possibly. That much is impossible to tell at such an early stage. But the signs thus far are ever so promising after years of stagnation as a striker. The captain did not shirk from his responsibilities, and looked to drive forward from midfield as much as possible when employed behind Vardy and Sturridge in the second half. He remains questionable defensively – being nutmegged by Joe Allen is never a good sign, particularly when you opt not to track back afterwards – but that is not his remit. He is there to instill calm in possession and pick passes no other player in the squad can. He is doing just that.
The best players act in the decisive moments even during poor individual performances. Alli did so against Russia, where he struggled throughout but, on one occasion, evaded the attention of two or three Russian defenders to create an opening for Rooney. Here, the 20-year-old was evidently fatigued after his exertions during a quite remarkable season for club and country. He had just one shot, was dispossessed more times than any other player (five), and only Hart, Sterling and Harry Kane recorded a lower pass accuracy than his 79% – they were England’s three worst performers.
And yet, in that crucial moment, that difference between draw and victory, that split second, it was Alli who England could rely on. The 20-year-old received Vardy’s clever touch, looked to burst through a stoic Wales defence, and flicked the ball into Sturridge’s path. The finish from the Liverpool man was excellent, but Alli made it all possible. His reward should probably be a much-needed rest.
Impressive energy? Check. Admirable pressing? Check. Clever touches, positive movement and a role as the catalyst through whom England’s early attacks flowed? Check, check and check. The most Adam Lallana of first halves.
Obvious fatigue? Check. A decline in influence? Check. Substituted in the second half? Check. The most Adam Lallana of second halves. But the Liverpool midfielder, who many felt was fortunate to have started the opener of this European Championship, is now a certain starter for the decisive clash with Slovakia. As predictable as it is that Lallana’s impact diminishes as games wear on, he sets the tone from kick-off. Only an errant finish from Sterling in the seventh minute from his inch-perfect centre meant that a first assist at a major tournament was not recorded. His summer has been a surprisingly productive one. Thanks, Jurgen.
He had been tipped as the next Alan Shearer heading into this tournament; his performances have been more akin to a Michael Ricketts or a Francis Jeffers. As insipid and ineffective Kane was against Russia, he was absolutely anonymous when trusted to lead the line against Wales. The system did not help, but England lacked energy, fight and a focal point in the first half in Lens. With Kane removed at half-time, they looked incisive, bright and threatening. The 22-year-old had 13 touches in 45 first-half minutes; Marcus Rashford had 17 in 18 second-half minutes. But the biggest mark against the Tottenham forward’s name is that fact that his two main rivals produced when required. Vardy and Sturridge’s goals could force Hodgson into using a formation with two strikers against Slovakia. It is a system in which Kane’s starting place would be under grave threat.
The general feeling is that he really does need some rest; hopefully it is fatigue and not a matter of style as to why he has struggled so often for the national team. Better strikers than Kane have impressed at club level but failed to replicate their form on the international stage.
In an alternate universe, Sterling is England’s hero. The Manchester City winger had faced the most intense scrutiny of any player after the draw with Russia – much of it undue, but plenty of it fair. But seven minutes in against Wales, he latched on to Lallana’s simple cross to dispatch past Wayne Hennessey and give Hodgson’s men a crucial early lead.
In reality, Sterling’s summer nightmare continued. The chance laid on by his former Liverpool teammate was a simple one, but the 21-year-old miscued horribly. From there, his confidence, as it had after his first mistake in the opening game, drastically dropped. He delayed in attack. He offered nothing in defence. He was regularly dispossessed. The crowd turned against him with each mistake; his half-time substitution was a merciful one from the manager. The foundation of an incredible talent is there, but Pep Guardiola has a hell of a lot of work to do. This European Championship has set back his development.
DANIEL STURRIDGE (on for Sterling, 45)
Few things are more ‘Daniel Sturridge’ than having the joint-most shots of the game (four) despite playing just 45 minutes. Creating and scoring a critical goal is one of them, and England were transformed upon his introduction. The Liverpool striker demanded the ball, and while the end product was often lacking, he remained determined to make a difference. Kane had floundered by playing a reactive game, expecting his teammates to create a goalscoring opportunity for him. Sturridge flourished as he was proactive, dropping deep to earn possession, piercing the Welsh midfield with blistering runs, and using his skill to fashion openings. His goal came not from a Walker cross or a Rooney through ball, but from Sturridge himself moving the ball forward, running into the area and finishing with ease. The 26-year-old can be utterly infuriating, but… ah, f**k it… I love Daniel Sturridge.
JAMIE VARDY (on for Kane, 45)
Would you like to see the sum total of my notes on Vardy? Are you sure? Fine, here it is:
A simple four-letter word, but one which encapsulates what the Leicester striker offers. When Hodgson and England needed inspiration at half-time, he turned to Vardy. The 29-year-old had seven touches, completed five passes, registered a passing accuracy of 40 per cent and was caught offside as many times as he had a shot (one). But he played a pivotal role in an emotional recovery, firing home an instinctive equaliser, before contributing in the build-up to Sturridge’s winner. The party continues.
MARCUS RASHFORD (on for Lallana, 73)
Remember your mate who said that taking Marcus Rashford to Euro 2016 was precisely the same scenario as taking Theo Walcott to the 2006 World Cup? That the 18-year-old would meet the same fate as the then-17-year-old, and not play a single minute of tournament football? That the Manchester United’s striker’s ‘expected goals’ data model was rather lacklustre?
What were you doing at 18? Because Rashford was becoming the youngest ever England player to feature at a European Championship. And instead of there being signs of the forward finally graduating to a level beyond him, he shone. His competitive debut, his Premier League debut and his England debut have been taken in his stride, and now a major tournament appearance is to his name. The teenager was positive, and forced his moments as opposed to waiting for them. He really is rather exciting.