It is rarely encouraging to see a manager still tinkering with his team deep into the group stage of an international tournament. One or two changes here and there may be necessary to find the right cohesion; some players struggle to handle the expectation while others thrive under the spotlight. But transforming the starting line-up with six new faces – which is what various reports believe Roy Hodgson will do against Slovakia tonight – demonstrates either an enormous show of faith in the squad or a level of complacency that could be brutally punished at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in Saint Etienne.
Hodgson is not forced to take such a risk. England could yet finish third in Group B, having thrown away two points against Russia before battling back to beat Wales, and Slovakia – with the talismanic Marek Hamsik in their side – are no pushovers. Hodgson was bold in sending on Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge at the interval when his team trailed to Wales – England’s first ever double half-time substitution at an international tournament – but following that remedial measure with major surgery smacks of either desperation or arrogance. The time for experimentation is over: building momentum is now essential.
Hodgson will be confident that his stand-ins can get the job done, providing what could be a vital rest for captain Wayne Rooney along with Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose. Raheem Sterling, the sixth name on the list, may not appear again in France after a difficult first two matches.
With Kane exhausted from Tottenham’s exertions under tough taskmaster Mauricio Pochettino and both Vardy and Sturridge scoring against Wales, it is time to freshen up the attack. But bringing in Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson – who have seven Premier League appearances between them since the middle of February – and switching the full-backs to award Ryan Bertrand and Nathaniel Clyne their first taste of tournament football, appears to be needless meddling.
At best, England’s preparations for Euro 2016 have been confusing. “I don’t want to be accused of not taking the game seriously enough by making changes that people don’t understand,” said Hodgson on Sunday. At worst they hark back to Fabio Capello’s disastrous management at the 2010 World Cup. The Italian called Ledley King and Jamie Carragher into his squad despite neither defender previously making an appearance during his reign, while a phone call was also put in to Paul Scholes. “It’s a big decision and I wasn’t really given enough time to think about it,” said Scholes, who had retired from international duty six years earlier. It was an embarrassing state of affairs. Despite England breezing through qualifying, Capello could not bridge the gulf between getting the nation to the World Cup and achieving anything of note when the competition proper kicked off. It is a challenge which has also seen Hodgson falter.
It was a curious move to select Rooney in midfield against Russia and Wales on the evidence of half a dozen games for Manchester United, and the feeling remains that he could be overrun by stronger opponents in the knock-out stage. If Hodgson had an inkling that he might deploy his captain in the centre of the pitch in France, then surely it would have been worth testing the idea in the warm-up matches or the closing rounds of qualifying when England had already assured their place. Instead the manager invites the accusation that he is making it up as he goes along. Sturridge and Vardy, sent on to inspire a rescue mission against Wales, had only played together once before. At the 2014 World Cup, Sterling and Henderson were handed their first competitive starts in the defeat to Italy.
Rather than Capello, Hodgson would much prefer to emulate Terry Venables, the last England manager to guide the country beyond the quarter-finals at a major tournament. Twenty years on, the echoes of Euro ’96 can be heard in England’s challenge at Euro 2016: a lead has been lost late in the first game to an eminently beatable opponent and followed by a hard-fought, potentially catalytic victory over a rival British nation. So what comes next?
For Venables, it was a 4-1 thrashing of the Netherlands that galvanized the team to such an extent they were catapulted all the way to penalties against Germany in the semi-final. After settling on his team before the tournament, Venables stuck with his starting XI throughout the group stage. With momentum gained by victories over Scotland and then the Dutch, he was afforded the opportunity to make cosmetic adjustments in the knock-out rounds, replacing the suspended Paul Ince with David Platt for the Spain quarter-final and starting both midfielders at the expense of Gary Neville as he switched to a back three against Germany.
By that stage the core of the team had gelled and there was an understanding between the players to couple the belief in the squad and in the stands. In 2010, Capello made three changes (one enforced through an injury to King), including his goalkeeper, after a 1-1 draw with USA and another three following one of England’s worst ever tournament performances when they were held 0-0 by Algeria. After twisting twice to little noticeable improvement on the pitch, Capello chose to stick – in resignation as much as anything else – against Germany, when his failure to find an effective formula was ruthlessly exposed.
Hodgson, who didn’t get that far in 2014, will aim to avoid the same evisceration. To suffer defeat to Slovakia tonight, which would likely lead to England finishing third in a favourable group, would be unforgivable. The mood in the camp heading into the last 16 would be dampened by the sense of an opportunity missed; at home it would be mutinous. It is a gamble Hodgson is reportedly willing to take with his six changes. Against Wales he was bold, let’s hope he now isn’t foolish.