Roy Hodgson Earns Credit for England Changes but Must Remember to Keep It Simple

Thomas CooperFeatured ColumnistJune 16, 2016

Roy Hodgson watches on during a frustrating but ultimately pleasing afternoon for England as they beat Wales 2-1 to go top of Euro 2016 Group B.
Roy Hodgson watches on during a frustrating but ultimately pleasing afternoon for England as they beat Wales 2-1 to go top of Euro 2016 Group B.Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

Like most things in life, football can change in an instant. If England go anywhere in Euro 2016, they will almost certainly look back on Daniel Sturridge's late winner against Wales as one such pivotal moment.

It will at least allow their manager Roy Hodgson to breathe a little more easily in the immediate aftermath of that 2-1 victory than might have been the case. His decision to bring on Sturridge and Jamie Vardy—who cancelled out Gareth Bale's opener earlier in the half—changed the game.

Hodgson deserves some credit for showing an understanding of the situation at hand and acting, something he did not to do in the latter stages of their 1-1 opener with Russia. In the process, he may have chanced upon the realisation that simplicity will be key to his squad's chances of progression beyond Group B (the new table below).

It should be said England were hardly the most complicated of beasts prior to the changes. Still, there was an overthinking to their play that they slightly but crucially moved away from after going a goal down.

Hodgson fielded the same starting XI that played in the 1-1 draw with Russia.
Hodgson fielded the same starting XI that played in the 1-1 draw with Russia.Chris Brunskill Ltd/Getty Images

To begin with, they played the same 4-3-3 that started against Russia.

Harry Kane led the attack with Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling deployed either side of him. Dele Alli and Wayne Rooney looked to offer penetration from midfield, full-backs Danny Rose and Kyle Walker the width.

Early evidence suggested they would cause Wales' wing-back-augmented back five problems.

They won a corner in the third minute when a fine diagonal from Rooney to Walker put Neil Taylor under pressure. On the seventh, Kane seized possession at the halfway line and sent Lallana scurrying forward into the open space. His cross was inch-perfect, but an off-balance Sterling could not convert.

England were accused of not being clinical enough against Russia, and there was some truth to that. However, the general positivity and imagination infusing their play in that game was mostly encouraging. Their eventual loss of the lead had more to do with their defence and Hodgson's belated and still misjudged changes.

If he took his early chance, Raheem Sterling's match may have turned out differently. As it was, he ended up substituted at half-time with England a goal down.
If he took his early chance, Raheem Sterling's match may have turned out differently. As it was, he ended up substituted at half-time with England a goal down.Clive Rose/Getty Images

Hopes they would tap into that same vein of form quickly dissipated against Wales.

Rather than a sign of the creativity with which they would eviscerate Chris Coleman's willing but limited side, Sterling's chance ended up being as good as it got for 45 minutes.

The Manchester City man was hesitant to take players on and lacked quality when he did have space. Kane toiled up front, again seeing little of the ball in the penalty box. Lallana put the yards in but was less incisive than against Russia.

Moments of spontaneity were few and far between. Wales got bodies behind the ball and engaged where they could, breaking up any rhythm England threatened to establish in midfield.

It is hard to understand why they were unable to play as fluidly as they did against Russia, to specify where the balance of the front three that looked so effective at points in the preceding two years went to.

Like against Russia, Harry Kane saw little of the ball in the opposition box. On one of the few occasions he did, his header was blocked by Ben Davies' arm.
Like against Russia, Harry Kane saw little of the ball in the opposition box. On one of the few occasions he did, his header was blocked by Ben Davies' arm.PHILIPPE HUGUEN/Getty Images

Were Wales just too hard to break down defensively? Is the athleticism and industry of the injured Danny Welbeck out on the left wing proving too big a miss?

"In the first half, we did OK but we had to move the ball quicker," Rooney reflected after, per the Football Association's website. He is right, but the observation does little to help understand whether it was a cause or symptom.

Hodgson's post-match insight into his plans offered no answer either.

"We thought a lot about what this starting 11 should be and of course we were aware that the game against Russia took a lot out of people," he said later, via the FA. "But I didn't want to start breaking eggs with a big stick and I thought I’d want to keep one or two up my sleeve."

Just what he wanted from his front three, and the team as an attacking unit altogether, in the first half remains unclear.

Chris Coleman's stubborn Wales defence shut down England for much of the match.
Chris Coleman's stubborn Wales defence shut down England for much of the match.Stu Forster/Getty Images

The players looked disoriented and disconnected, uncertain as to each other's positioning and intent in possession. This is certainly on them to an extent (especially the disappointingly poor Sterling), but they may also have benefited from the plainer direction of the second half.

"I wasn't counting on going a goal down, and I was rather hoping we’d see the first half out, maybe even in the lead, and then we"d make our changes," was as much as Hodgson offered here before turning his attention to what followed.

"I’ve got to say, particularly in the second half, it was a very dominant performance and we were very aggressive and bold in our attacking play."

"Bold" is stretching it in describing England after the interval, "aggressive" a little more appropriate. They dominated a Wales side that realised they could not compete in open play except in patches, but the quality of their play was still uninspired.

Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge came on at half-time for their first respective appearances of Euro 2016. They were to prove memorable ones.
Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge came on at half-time for their first respective appearances of Euro 2016. They were to prove memorable ones.Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

What the introduction of Sturridge and Vardy for Sterling and Kane—and to a slightly lesser extent, the lively Marcus Rashford replacing Lallana later on—really offered was directness.

Blunt, straightforward, often ugly directness.

It was not a front two proper, but even deployed in a slightly deeper role, Sturridge was always going to have an eye for goal.

The Liverpool striker brought a greater inclination to run at the Wales defence than the surprisingly timid Sterling. He wanted to send Ashley Williams and his defence backpedalling, to put them on their heels and shoot beyond them.

Prior to scoring, he blasted one over and botched a volley from a Danny Rose cross. Crucially, he kept trying, the general desire to keep searching for openings—for himself and others—eventually resulting in his terrific winner.

Sturridge also sent in the cross for Vardy's equaliser. The Leicester City man repaid him in stoppage time with a telling touch in the buildup to his fellow replacement's strike.

There was less notable difference in his contribution compared to Kane's than there was with Sturridge's set against Sterling. The starting centre-forward certainly did not get an opportunity anywhere near as good as the one Vardy scored from.

Where the adjustment worked was in the latter's greater willingness to stay among the Welsh defence.

Kane is very much used to participating and helping generate Tottenham Hotspur's attacking moves. Often isolated here, it was even more understandable he went in search of the ball.

Vardy is far from one-dimensional, but he more relishes operating on the shoulder of defenders. He had few opportunities to expose Wales with his pace, yet the greater proximity ensured the lethal Premier League champion (see above) was on hand to influence the game when it mattered.

Kyle Walker again impressed for England at right-back.
Kyle Walker again impressed for England at right-back.Stu Forster/Getty Images

The eventual result and the impact of Sturridge and Vardy do not completely mask what was largely an insipid collective England performance.

There was some good besides but also lingering cause for concern. Walker did not stop running out right while his Tottenham club-mate Eric Dier did strong work protecting a central defence that flattered to deceive against the currently unemployed frontman Hal Robson-Kanu.

Goalkeeper Joe Hart should definitely have done better stopping Bale's long-range free-kick. Doubts remain over whether Alli and Rooney are England's best bet in midfield (though their general hard work could get them to a point it is).

The performance did show that, at this stage at least, simplicity is England's friend.

Joe Hart looks on in disbelief as Gareth Bale's free-kick nestles in the back of the net.
Joe Hart looks on in disbelief as Gareth Bale's free-kick nestles in the back of the net.Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

The 4-3-3 may yet bring the best out of this team at the tournament. For now, though, making the most of their considerable forward options has to be the priority, and that likely means fielding a front two proper.

Hodgson brought all these strikers for a reason, he knew they could be difference-makers. In the diamond midfield 4-4-2 they have used at various points over the last couple of years, they have a simple system that can utilise them while not undermining other attributes—midfield production and full-back width—that have worked already at Euro 2016.

Playing this way is likely to be England's best chance of getting by right now, hopefully safely out of the group stage. From there, they can perhaps aspire to something a little more expansive again.