His gamble of making six changes may have backfired but Roy Hodgson was right about one thing on Monday night: England dominated Slovakia. The only problem is that 29 shots yielded just five on target as a new-look England line-up boasted almost two-thirds possession but lacked the incision to break their opponent down. ‘Le Mur Slovaque’ was the headline in this morning’s L’Equipe: The Slovak Wall.
“Soon we will make someone pay, we will score goals one day,” insisted Hodgson after Slovakia, led by a heroic performance from Martin Škrtel, claimed their first clean sheet in seven games at major tournaments. “When did England last come to a tournament and have three such dominant games in a row?” the manager continued. “We have taken the game to the opposition, we have controlled the play.”
It was bullish talk on an evening England finished second to Wales in Group B, having claimed only their third win in ten tournament matches under Hodgson against Chris Coleman’s side. They drew with both Slovakia and Russia, whose only point came against England in the opening game.
There is perhaps a lesson for Hodgson in Wales’ emphatic 3-0 victory over Russia, and the tape of that match may give England more ideas about what they need to do in the last 16 than re-watching the Slovakia snoozefest. Playing on the break, as they did against England in the first half, Wales managed seven more shots on target than Hodgson’s side mustered in Marseille. Slovakia beat Russia 2-1 in their second match with just 37% possession.
In tune with Leicester’s remarkable race to the Premier League title, football’s infatuation with possession appears to be waning. Only two teams recorded less than the Foxes’ average (45%) in England’s top flight this season while only four played more long balls per game. It was the pace of Vardy and precision of Riyad Mahrez on the counter-attack that put opponents to the sword, not hogging the ball while having little idea what to do with it.
That was the position England found themselves in on Monday. To a large extent they were victims of a revamped format which encourages unfancied teams entering the final group game with a victory already in the bag to consolidate and shut the game down. That was exactly Slovakia’s intention in Saint Etienne as they strived to hold on to third place and England, lacking the guile to find a breakthrough, were forced to dance to their tune. For all the talk of domination, it was Slovakia who controlled this game.
Although Jose Mourinho has fashioned an enormously successful career out of the tactic, Hodgson would probably have struggled to justify ceding the ball to Slovakia in a bid to tempt them out and then attack on the break. But with Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge leading the line, whose best ever seasons were both brought about by counter-attacking styles, it would have been far more conducive than allowing Jordan Henderson to creep into the final third and stand the ball up at the far post. For all the tools on Hodgson’s Swiss Army knife, England ended up using the file.
It may seem a counter-intuitive argument but England should play better against a team of greater quality, when they are forced to embrace their limitations instead of banging against a door that will not open. It is for this reason that Hodgson should hope to face old foe Portugal in the last 16. Cristiano Ronaldo no longer has the pace to defeat opponents on the counter, and Portugal, who have struggled with a similar problem to England against Iceland and Austria – averaging the third highest possession at Euro 2016 with only two points to show for it – will have to come out and build with the ball. Win, and England claim a scalp to finally foster self-belief and momentum; lose, and Hodgson will have to accept he hasn’t been good enough.
The manager already appears to know his team; the defence and midfield have been set since the Russia match, while Vardy and Sturridge played their way into the first XI with goalscoring substitute appearances against Wales. The only issue, of course, is that in choosing to rest players against Slovakia, Hodgson has yet to play his preferred line-up. What better way to start than in the last 16 of a major tournament?
It will not matter if England finally deliver a performance to pull the fans out of their seats. On Monday, the opposite happened at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard as weary minds and legs on the pitch transferred to the stands. Hodgson spoke with the confidence of a man with a plan in his post-match press conference and there is hope he can yet deliver. England couldn’t scale the Slovak wall, but it is a different challenge they should face from this stage on.