Commentary

Blunt England will struggle against defensive set-ups

Marek Hamsik of Slovakia (right) and Jamie Vardy of England in action during their Uefa Euro 2016 group B football match.
Marek Hamsik of Slovakia (right) and Jamie Vardy of England in action during their Uefa Euro 2016 group B football match.PHOTO: EPA

The longer it went on, the more predictable England got. And the less clear it became what they do next.

As if second place, and finishing second best to Wales was not dispiriting enough, perhaps most troubling for the England fans in Saint-Etienne was the sense of Roy Hodgson searching for solutions but only coming up with more problems.

Harry Kane is tired? Send Jamie Vardy to the rescue - except, in an increasingly frantic second half, he had barely a sniff at goal as England impatiently chased a winner.

Daniel Sturridge to provide the cutting edge in place of a dejected Raheem Sterling? The Liverpool striker had one of those games when, deprived of the ball for long periods, he was not about to pass it to anyone else.

Much attention inevitably focused on Hodgson's six changes - and few can dispute that the selection of an unfit Jack Wilshere, in particular, backfired - but there has been a pattern throughout the group games of England struggling to break down defensive teams.

Restricted to one set-piece goal by Russia, forced to strain for a winner against Wales, England laboured to break down Slovakia in a manner that drew groans of frustration at the final whistle.

It was worrying that a team with lots of strikers and ample chances still managed to look blunt, lacking in that a touch of the unexpected, short of any "wow" factor.

It was worrying that a team with lots of strikers and ample chances still managed to look blunt, lacking in that a touch of the unexpected, short of any "wow" factor.

England had 64 efforts in their three matches - their opponents had only 18 - yet have so very little to show for it against three teams largely content to sit back.

Hodgson has to show that he can break that pattern in the last 16 if his team face a side like Austria or Iceland, who are willing to let England hog the ball.

There is some logic to the argument that players such as Vardy and Sturridge will benefit from more space to run into against better teams who may come at England, but there is also the massive danger that the back line will be exposed.

Hodgson implied that we will only see the best of this England team against high-quality opposition but his job is to make them effective against anyone - certainly more ruthless than this.

Wayne Rooney's return off the bench drew huge roars from the crowd, the hope that he could be a galvanising influence on a team that needed a lift.

Yet, despite the incursions down the right flank of Nathaniel Clyne, England could not find that killer touch.

Despite a decent shift from Jordan Henderson, who played a couple of incisive passes and strived to run behind the Slovakia defence, England kept running into trouble.

England seemed stuck in third gear, unable to find that burst, that inventiveness, that dash of the unexpected.

Chances came and went, the ball flashing across the goalmouth, too many players crowding in the middle.

We had seen some of the same problems in England's previous matches, and it is not clear that Hodgson has an easy answer other than taking the sort of chance that Vardy failed to convert in the first half or a bit of luck with the sort of block or deflection that did not go their way against Slovakia.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2016, with the headline 'Blunt England will struggle against defensive set-ups'. Print Edition | Subscribe