Thursday June 16th, 2016

England moved to the top of Euro 2016's Group B after a dramatic 2-1 win over Wales, on Thursday, as goals from substitutes Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge capped the first come-from-behind win of Euro 2016 and eased the pressure on England coach Roy Hodgson.

Gareth Bale had opened the scoring with a 35-yard free kick that a diving Joe Hart parried into his own goal, and it appeared that England was going to stumble again after settling for a 1-1 draw with Russia in the opening match. The two substitutes delivered, though, and England finds itself in much better shape heading into the group finale against Slovakia.  

Here are three thoughts from the match:

Hodgson throws the dice–and wins 

Roy Hodgson hates to be seen as a conservative coach. It’s a real pet peeve for the England coach, and it’s hard to know just how much his keenness to lose this reputation affects some of his decisions. If it was unfair that after 40 years as a coach, this was the game that was to define his long career, then he was determined to go out with a bang. Or at least, with lots of strikers.

There could be few complaints that Hodgson picked the same starting XI that began the Russia game–and played well in the first half of that one–but this time the performance was not as good. There was possession but little end-product. Just as against Russia, the rare chances created were wasted.

So when Bale gave Wales a shock lead against the run of play just before halftime, Hodgson had to roll the dice.

Planet Futbol
Vardy, Sturridge come off bench to lead England over Wales

He threw on Vardy and Sturridge, which had a positive impact as England was sharper and more direct in the second period. Vardy continued his purple patch in front of goal with the equalizer, reacting sharply to Ashley Williams’s misdirected header. It was a fantastic decision by the referee’s officiating team, with the linesman behind the goal assuring that Vardy was not offside because the ball had come off an opposing player.

At that moment it looked like England would comfortably go on to win the game. The momentum was one-way, but chances were at a minimum; goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey did not have a single save to make before the 90-minute mark. Wales was happy to sit back and absorb the pressure, defending bravely.

With 15 minutes left, Hodgson threw the dice. He did not bring on Jack Wilshere, as he did against Russia, but Marcus Rashford, the 18-year-old Manchester United forward who made his first senior appearance in all football in February. It was brave from Hodgson. It was also a huge risk.

The clock had gone past 90 minutes when Sturridge, who was excellent, exchanged passes with Dele Alli in the area and shot early inside Hennessey’s near post. It was a dramatic end to a game that was high on passion, if not on quality. Hodgson took the risk. This time it paid off. He may not have gotten the performance this time, but at least he got the result. A conservative coach? He would have you think otherwise. 

Bale benefits from Wales dynamism

Gareth Bale had a relatively quiet first half–by his own standards, at least–until the dynamic pair of Joe Allen and Hal Robson-Kanu combined to dispossess Wayne Rooney and draw a foul from the England captain. The free kick was a long way ou, and the first thought was that Bale’s best-case scenario would be to nick a corner by thumping the ball at the wall.

The Real Madrid star had other ideas: five days after scoring from a free kick against Slovakia, he did the same, improbably, here. The ball flew over the wall and dipped sharply towards Joe Hart’s far post. The goalkeeper should have saved it, but his starting position was too close to the other post and though he got two hands on the ball, he could only push the ball into the side-netting.

Planet Futbol
Watch: Gareth Bale scores on England on long free kick

It was one of those ‘Wow!’ moments that you only get at international tournaments: like when Dmitri Payet scored a last-minute winner against Romania, or Birkir Bjarnason leveled up for Iceland against Portugal. We have seen a few free kicks go in at this tournament, but none from greater distance than this one. Hart should have done better, but it was a clear reminder that with Bale in this Wales team, anything is possible.

As he said after the game: “We are disappointed but the result but are still in the thick of it in this group.”

With three points, it is tied for second, and with another performance like this against Russia Monday, Wales should make it to the next phase.  

Game to forget for Sterling

Raheem Sterling referred to himself as #TheHatedOne? to his 1.8 million Instagram followers shortly after the Russia game. Aside from the fact that it shows players take notice of social media comments on their performances–never a good idea, you’d imagine–it also suggested that Sterling felt he was under pressure. In the space of two years, the breakout player (indeed the only positive) of England’s ill-fated 2014 World Cup campaign has become the scapegoat for this current campaign; overpaid, overpriced, and underperforming.

The Manchester City winger missed the first chance of this game, somehow stretching and missing the target after Adam Lallana’s superb break and cross from the right.

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It set the tone for his performance, which was peppered with misplaced passes, running into trouble, and failing to stretch the opposition defense. Before the tournament, Sterling had talked up the positive impact of team psychologist Steve Peters, who worked with him at Liverpool and, now, with England. “He just gets it into your head that mentality is key and a strong part of it is blocking certain things out and focusing singularly on your football.”

Sterling only lasted 45 minutes before Vardy, who might well have put that chance away, replaced him. Perhaps this is a peculiarly English problem: not so long ago, Sterling was the great new hope of the English game. Let’s just hope that Alli or Marcus Rashford does not suffer the same fate in 2018.

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