It’s amazing what a goal can do for you.
Against Russia, England played exceptionally well but failed to take any of the numerous chances, and ultimately paid the price when the Russians equalised at the death.
Five days later and the buzz of the performance has firmly worn off. It was one of the better England performances I’ve seen in a major tournament, but now all we remember is the crushing inevitability of England falling short when it mattered.
I imagine after the Wales game today we might just have the opposite on our hands.
The first half was very, very poor from an England point of view. The commentators and pundits could say all they wanted about Wales hanging on, but that’s a compliment England’s performance ill deserved.
Things got off to a good start for Wales, with Gareth Bale’s long range free kick deceiving Joe Hart and his poor positioning. For the second game in a row poor goalkeeping had given Gareth Bale a free kick goal the placement of the shot didn’t seem to warrant.
Bale can’t be blamed for the goalkeeping inadequacies, though.
You can slate Hart until you’re sky-blue in the face, but at half time both sides had the same amount of shots on target. Bale hit a fast-paced, swerving shot on target and got a goal for it. Our only attempt of the half was Cahill’s header. Bale scored not because of Hart’s error, but because he took a gamble and it worked. We didn’t make their goalkeeper work and therefore didn’t score. It’s not complicated.
Alongside Hart, few players came out of the first half for England with any kind of acclaim. Kane and Sterling were two of the worst offenders, but Alli too looked completely out of sorts, like the manager’s son who knew he couldn’t be dropped.
Wayne Rooney too had a poor game.
I talked about this in the review of the Russia game, but the way the media fall over themselves to praise him can get really grating. His “range” of passing is praised ad nauseam, but he actually displays little range. What he displays is an accuracy over long distances. That’s not a range. To demonstrate range he needs to show variety, and his short passing offers little, especially when as telegraphed as his technique tends to be.
On top of this his long passing, while accurate, tends to be floating and slow, taking the pace out of attacks and giving the opposition defence time to get back in to shape.
If this sounds like an unfair excuse to attack Rooney then, yeah, that’s probably accurate to a degree. But it’s also part of the problem we have in our passing game. The ball is often sluggish, with movement slow and deliberate. It’s no surprise that our winning goal came from a quick exchange of passes that the defence had little time to react to.
If we have a strength in our footballing DNA it’s that of “speed”. Not necessary on foot but in tempo of our play. It’s what we mean when we talk about an English style, and it’s why we think the Premier League is the toughest to play in. We naturally lean towards the “Heavy Metal” football Klopp is trying to introduce at Liverpool. It doesn’t matter if the passing is short or long, but if it’s quick it’s difficult to defend. It’s not like our attempts at Spanish-style passing are all that accurate anyway, why not speed it up 200% and see what happens?
The second half was definitely better. I was banging the drum all week about Sturridge and he was a great pick to come on. His legs might be made of matchsticks and Twiglets, but when he’s fit he’s probably the best option we have upfront with the ball at his feet. The full backs also pushed on a lot higher, and Rashford showed that kind of youthful exuberance we were hoping for from Alli.
That said, the performance still wasn’t great. It improved greatly after the break but tailed off towards the end of the game as the passing again became stilted and slow, with lazy, over-hit crosses aimed at neither of our sub-6′ strikers. Each time the ball approached the area the ball was released three or four seconds late, allowing Wales a chance to get back in to shape and defend solidly as a unit.
And yet we scored. In injury time no less. And somehow the previous 91 minutes no longer matter.
I suspect with time we will look back on the performance of this game far more positively than the performance five days ago, even though the actual style of play was far better against Russia. It’s goals that matter, and this time we were the ones to get one at the death.
It just goes to show that ultimately performances matter little. After the Russia game I was deflated. Now I’m buzzing.
Roll on Slovakia.
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