Hodgson feeling the heat
Roy Hodgson is feeling the heat. Having strolled through the qualification campaign for Euro 2016, England were handed a favourable draw on paper at the finals in the shape of an ageing Russian side, Wales and Slovakia.
However, England have so far laboured during the group games, winning only once against Wales courtesy of a last minute Daniel Sturridge goal. Either side of that victory, England have dominated possession of the ball but over 180 minutes against Russia and Slovakia, amassed only 2 points and a solitary goal against resolute defensive units. The lead up to the torunament was dominated by discussions about the rich resources at Hodgson's disposal in the attacking third of the field and whether he would opt to take 4 or 5 strikers with him to the tournament. Kane, Vardy, Rooney, Sturridge and the new kid on the block Marcus Rashford all boarded the plane to France but the goals have not flowed. Kane toiled in the first game against Russia before being substituted at half time in the game against Wales. Vardy and Sturridge changed the course of the Welsh game as substitutes and were rewarded with starts against the Slovakians in the final group game. However, both struggled to make an impact as England could not find a path through the Martin Skrtel inspired Slovakian defence.
It has not all been bad for England. They have dominated possession in each of the three group games and for a nation that has often been criticised at major tournaments for failing to cherish the ball this could be viewed as a step forward. However, in the midfield area there is a dearth of creativity, particularly in the wider areas, where Raheem Sterling the only natural winger in the squad, is suffering from a crisis in confidence and has struggled to make any impact thus far. In private, Hodgson and his backroom team must be considering whether an in-form Andros Townsend would have been a more fruitful option. Adam Lallana has impressed in spells but as at club level, his finishing has let him down, whilst skipper Rooney has played well in a much deeper midfield role. Eric Dier has had an excellent tournament protecting the back four and even chipped in with a goal in the opening game against Russia whilst his club mate at Tottenham Kyle Walker has been one of the stars of the tournament.
For a team that is attempting to build rhythm and momentum in the tournament it was galling to see Hodgson make 6 changes to his starting XI for the must-win game against Slovakia. In light of their struggles to break teams down in the opening group games, the omission of Rooney, so long the talisman of the team, was a major surprise. The decision to copy Mauricio Pochettino's approach of rotating his full backs also backfired on Hodgson with Ryan Bertrand in particular struggling at left back to offer the attacking threat demanded of the full backs in the England formation. One can appreciate the need to rotate at times during the course of a 38 game Premier League season but in tournament football the decision to rest so many key players has left the England manager under pressure that is very much of his own making.
Yet Hodgson has landed lucky. A last minute winner for Iceland over Austria yesterday means that England will now play the smallest nation left in the competition in the last 16 and are now odds-on favourites to progress. Had that game ended in a draw, England would have faced a sterner test in the form of Portugal and Christiano Ronaldo, who bounced back from his personal horror show in front of goal against Austria to grab two goals and an assist in the 3-3 draw with Hungary yesterday. England will know what to expect. The minnows from Iceland will sit deep and will focus on frustrating England who will once again need to find the right combination to unlock a compact and well-drilled defence. Rooney will come back into the team as will Danny Rose and Kyle Walker who will be tasked with serving up crosses from the wider areas. Yet the key decision will once again revolve around the attack. If Jamie Vardy needed a case study in what life would be like at Arsenal he got it in the Slovakian game with the space in behind the defence that he thrives on at a premium. His threat was diminished with the Slovaks camped on their 18 yard box and Hodgson may opt to revert to Harry Kane as his penalty box striker. Marcus Rashford may also be unleashed to add a different dimension while it is likely Sturridge will retain his place.
The heat may be on but a win over Iceland will ease the pressure on Hodgson and ensure they reach their minimum aim of the Quarter-Finals. In the knock-out stage an early goal will be crucial, forcing Iceland to abandon their defensive approach to remain in the competition. We will watch with interest to see who Hodgson turns to in his moment of need.