England’s evolution faces first real test against Russia – Europe’s other great underachievers
England v Russia: Kick-off 11pm (UAE), live on BeIN Max 1,2,3
Football is the national sport in England, but nostalgia can feel like the country’s favourite pastime. If Euro 2016 serves as an opportunity, this summer provides two anniversaries.
Recent weeks have featured sentimental documentaries on television, looking back at Euro ’96, England’s last semi-final appearance in any major tournament, and the 1966 World Cup, their sole win.
The Euro ‘96 anthem, “Three Lions”, featured the suggestion it marked “30 years of hurt”. Now it is 50 years of hurt. England’s glory days are so distant that Marcus Rashford, the youngest member of their squad, was not even born the last time they won a quarter-final. Their campaign to reverse history’s damaging trends begins against suitable opponents.
Russia may have been semi-finalists in Euro 2008 and, as the Soviet Union, runners-up two decades earlier, but they are the eastern European England, the continent’s other great underachievers. They have often been twinned in underachievement. Now they are in a group that offers each the chance to progress, something neither could do from their pool in the last World Cup.
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They meet as kindred spirits and opposites. Russia have one of the oldest squads in France, England the youngest. There is a freshness to Roy Hodgson’s party. They are also an evolving group, a work in progress.
This is a step into the unknown, and not just for Rashford, who had not made his first-team debut four months ago. A year ago, Dele Alli had never played a top-flight game. Two years ago, Jamie Vardy had not. Three years ago, he and Harry Kane were on the bench together for Championship play-off contenders Leicester. Unlike Rashford, the other three are strong contenders to start on Saturday night. For Alli, Eric Dier and Danny Rose, it will be a competitive England debut.
Leonid Slutsky, the Russia manager, doubles up as CSKA Moscow’s coach. Hodgson also seems to have brought an element of the club game to the international stage. Those who wear white shirts for Tottenham may do so for England. Five Spurs players – Kyle Walker, Rose, Dier, Alli and Kane – are probable starters. It is possible to detect the influence of the England coach Gary Neville, a vocal admirer of Mauricio Pochettino’s regime at White Hart Lane, in the shift in Hodgson’s thinking.
And England’s plans are subject to change regularly. They represent a welcome break from some of their tactically inflexible predecessors. Now they have changed from 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 diamond, or vice-versa, in every recent game. The latter formation has become the preferred choice, partly because Danny Welbeck’s absence robbed them of a compelling option on the flanks and the emergence of a group of strikers gave Hodgson more reasons to pick two, but England scarcely shone with the diamond, Kane, Vardy and Wayne Rooney against Portugal last Thursday.
The question of how, and if, this hastily-assembled group gel remains unresolved. So, too, the issues of how to accommodate Rooney and if they can defend. They only conceded three goals in qualifying but have leaked eight in seven subsequent friendlies. If it is not a disastrous record, nor is it a particularly reassuring one. With full-backs configured to attack and centre-backs, probably Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling, who are not quite in the highest class, they may have neither the structure nor the personnel for frugality. Russia’s in-form striker Artem Dzyuba, scorer of 27 goals for club and country this season, presents a first test before they encounter a very different form of opponent in Wales’ Gareth Bale on Thursday.
At the other end, while they have players who have been potent for their clubs, England’s squad boast a mere 79 international goals, 52 of them from Rooney. A corollary of inexperience is that there are questions to answer and this England team faces more than many of their predecessors. Provide satisfactory answers, however, and they can guarantee they will be remembered fondly in the future.
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Updated: June 10, 2016 04:00 AM