Leadership Issues Undermine Positive England in 1-1 Euro 2016 Opener with Russia

Thomas CooperFeatured ColumnistJune 12, 2016

Eric Dier is mobbed by jubilant England team-mates after his free-kick gave them the lead against Russia. Unfortunately, they could not last the distance and ended up drawing 1-1.
Eric Dier is mobbed by jubilant England team-mates after his free-kick gave them the lead against Russia. Unfortunately, they could not last the distance and ended up drawing 1-1.Associated Press

The last time England faced Russia prior to Euro 2016 was in their unsuccessful qualifying campaign for the 2008 European Championship.

That costly 2-1 defeat in Moscow—future Tottenham Hotspur striker Roman Pavlyuchenko's brace cancelling out Wayne Rooney's opener—embodied the national team's malaise back then as much as any performance.

As they begin this latest tournament in France, England's 1-1 draw with the same opposition was just as apt a representation of their standing.

The predominantly youthful team went some way to justifying the pre-competition hope and hype around them with a positive, assertive display. Unfortunately, fears that leadership issues within the defence in particular could undermine the team's overall efforts also came to fruition.

It is tempting to paint Vasili Berezutski's stoppage-time equaliser for Russia as scarcely deserved.

Vasili Berezutski caught England out after they failed to sufficiently reorganise after a Russia corner.
Vasili Berezutski caught England out after they failed to sufficiently reorganise after a Russia corner.Ariel Schalit/Associated Press/Associated Press

England played the better football throughout, taking 15 attempts at goal compared to the six mustered by Leonid Slutsky's side (five to two with shots on target), per BBC Sport. Eric Dier's 73rd-minute free-kick for the opener resulted from one such move. Captain Wayne Rooney fed fellow midfielder Dele Alli, who was obstructed attempting to take on Georgi Shchennikov just outside the penalty area.

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Even after that, England had chances to extend their lead.

Yet Russia's more direct game had threatened to catch Roy Hodgson's men out before Berezutski's header. In open play, they had pushed them back and from set pieces, particularly corners, had caused some disarray.

They kept the contest close enough, and when such a moment came late on, their opponents were found wanting.

A corner was cleared out only as far as Shchennikov. As he charged back toward the box, England's defence had not reorganised.

Defenders Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling were despondent at the final whistle. They had done well in patches but were left to rue one costly period of play.
Defenders Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling were despondent at the final whistle. They had done well in patches but were left to rue one costly period of play.Michael Steele/Getty Images

With Gary Cahill, Kyle Walker and others on the right-hand side all fixated on the advancing full-back, Chris Smalling deserted what should have been his territory to track Denis Glushakov behind them (though even then, the centre-back ultimately left him to "finish" with the ball already behind the line). Alli tried to help but could not stop the smaller left-back Danny Rose getting outjumped by Russia skipper Berezutski.

It was all the more frustrating as England had largely defended well.

Making their major tournament debuts, the Tottenham full-back pair Rose and Walker were as combative as expected. In between them, Cahill and Smalling were committed and largely diligent, their set-play/cross mental block all the more baffling given their strength in the air in other areas of the field.

The imposing Artem Dzyuba was well dealt with, and when others searched for space, a midfielder was invariably on hand to help—usually Dier but sometimes Alli and Rooney too.

Even the best of defenders cannot maintain concentration all of the time.

The 20th anniversary has meant there's been plenty of reminiscing about England's Euro '96 campaign in recent weeks. That back line boasted Tony Adams, Gary Neville and Stuart Pearce—three of England's best-ever defenders. But rewatch the semi-final with Germany, and you will see Psycho's ball-watching capitalised on by Stefan Kuntz for the game's equaliser.

Pondering changes? Roy Hodgson's in-game management did not go as well as the initial strategising putting his team together.
Pondering changes? Roy Hodgson's in-game management did not go as well as the initial strategising putting his team together.Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Still, the frequency with which the current centre-backs are being caught out suggests there is a leadership deficiency. England have had issues here since the 2014 World Cup, and the struggle to get a handle on it when other aspects are not so problematic is puzzling.

Concerning as this failure to take responsibility in the heart of the defence will be for Hodgson, there was also an obligation on him to do more to try stop his team losing their hard-earned advantage.

Speaking to the Football Association's Mark Gilbert post-match, his overall assessment was understandably mixed:

I felt we deserved to win—it was a bitter blow and a bitter pill to swallow but if we can swallow it and take encouragement from the good things we did offensively and defensively then I shall be very hopeful going forward that the misfortune of tonight won’t happen again.

When you dominate the game as much as we did and play as well as we did and concede a goal two minutes into injury time of course it feels much more like a defeat than a draw.

The England manager undoubtedly set up his team well (more on that later). However, he was nowhere near proactive enough in making suitable adjustments late in the contest.

The team's general strategy out of possession was to get in shape positionally and sit off Russia. If the eastern Europeans did not give it away themselves trying to force a way through, their bringing it forward in isolation would initiate engagement. Right-sided midfielder Adam Lallana's closing down was especially effective here.

Hodgson's first substitute, Jack Wilshere, helped England to an extent but more was needed to stem and reverse the Russian flow.
Hodgson's first substitute, Jack Wilshere, helped England to an extent but more was needed to stem and reverse the Russian flow.Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

The risk Russia would end up finding space to advance on a tiring England bore out throughout the second half—unsurprisingly so in the final 20 minutes.

England were still pushing on prior to Dier's goal but were already conceding more of the ball. Substitute Jack Wilshere made an impact in changing this with his incisive promptings but could only do so much reversing his team's retreat.

The introduction of a raring-to-go Jamie Vardy instead of or alongside Kane could have made a big difference. His energy would be useful both in closing down and unsettling Russia on the ball and as a speedy outlet to relieve pressure on his defence.

Alas, Hodgson chose just to replace Raheem Sterling on the left with James Milner. It proved a futile change, doing little to impede Russia's gathering momentum, more so reinforcing the negativity that encouraged it.

James Milner's introduction alone did little to help England.
James Milner's introduction alone did little to help England.Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

These will be areas the veteran coach needs to think on for Thursday's match with Wales, the fellow Brits top of Group B following their 2-1 win over Slovakia. Elsewhere, though, Hodgson will hope the disappointment of this draw will only motivate his players to earn the victory they should have achieved in Marseille.

The 4-3-3 he selected struck on a healthy balance, certainly offensively. Injuries permitting, there will be little reason to change it against the Welsh.

After suggesting in the warm-up friendlies he would use Rooney further forward, the skipper was instead deployed in midfield.

This writer certainly had doubts as to the merit of his inclusion amid the more vital and energetic performers in this squad. Credit where credit is due, though, he made his presence count, pulling the strings with an eye-catching range of passing and smartly choosing when to join attacks himself.

Wayne Rooney's selection in midfield worked a treat against Russia. It will be interesting to see how he fares there against Wales—and perhaps beyond.
Wayne Rooney's selection in midfield worked a treat against Russia. It will be interesting to see how he fares there against Wales—and perhaps beyond.BERTRAND LANGLOIS/Getty Images

Alli and the attacking midfielders, Lallana and Sterling, benefited from this intelligent directing. So too did Rose and Walker, their forays forward a frequent target for Rooney. Eventually removed for Wilshere, he was arguably missed late on.

Walker in particular shone in his final third work. His combinations with Alli and Lallana consistently deceived the Russians and were unlucky not to be rewarded by an earlier goal or two, the Liverpool man narrowly firing wide on one such occasion.

England will certainly need to improve in this regard.

Frontman Kane battled in the channels and up against Russia's back four but had little created for him specifically. Alli and Rooney got to test Russia goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, but the lack of service for the Premier League's top scorer wasted him as much as his taking rather than attacking corners.

As for Dier, his goal was a richly deserved moment for a player who had been close to immense behind all this.

When not bypassed by long balls, he bossed the midfield, halting breaks and shaping his team's play—the latter through both penetrative passes and his moving back to facilitate charges from Cahill and Smalling.

You occasionally see Dier line up for free-kicks with Tottenham, only to see Christian Eriksen, Kane or Erik Lamela take them. The shot that deceived Akinfeev had shades of the Dane's stylish set plays about it.

Neighbours Wales are going to test Dier as a midfield presence, as well as others facets of the team's play, more than Russia did. England are unlikely to be granted the first-half leeway they were here, while the likes of Gareth Bale (scorer of their first goal against Slovakia) and Aaron Ramsey will be even more dangerous than any of Slutsky's men.

Hodgson and his team must do their best not to undermine themselves any further. Get out of their own way, and they may start producing the kind of well-rounded performances any team would be happy to define themselves with.