Monday June 20th, 2016

For England, the group finished as it had begun–with a draw in a game it should have won.

In all three matches, England dominated, controlled the ball, pounded the opposition box, and struggled to create clear chances. Perhaps it could be criticized for a slight lack of precision or for a want of a moment of magical creativity to break down a massed rearguard but, as Spain’s regular 1-0 wins over the past six years have shown, it’s just not that easy to score against sides that pack men behind the ball.

Going through in second place shouldn’t make a huge difference in terms of the last 16. After Monday's 0-0 draw vs. Slovakia and Wales's 3-0 win over Russia, England will face the side second in Group F rather than a third-placed side, but it could matter come a potential quarterfinal against host France, assuming both win their last-16 games.

In a strange way, though, playing a better side may suit England better. It has pace in abundance in forward areas and should be dangerous on the break again a side that commits men forward.

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There had been complaints after two matches from those who think Jamie Vardy should have started, but he essentially played his way out of contention in the pre-tournament friendly against Portugal. Against defenses that play deep, he is far less effective than when he has space behind the defenders in which to burst. Manager Roy Hodgson knew both Russia and Wales would sit back and pack men behind the ball, and he concluded he was better off playing a 4-3-3 to stretch the play laterally.

In terms of controlling the game and getting plenty of balls into the box, it worked; the problem was a slight lack of quality in terms of chance creation, plus weary display from Harry Kane, perhaps paying at last for having played 50 games for Tottenham last season.

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The use of Rooney in midfield has caused much debate.

Although some, such as his former Manchester United teammate Rio Ferdinand and former Ireland and Leeds midfielder John Giles, have been impressed by his diligence and distribution, others, most notably former Liverpool midfielder Graeme Souness, have been critical of his tendency to spray passes out to the right flank for Kyle Walker.

Too slow and too predictable, they say, while it was a worry how Rooney faded out of the game against Russia once Aleksandr Kokorin was pushed deep to deal with him. Then again, maybe the deep use of Rooney was a tactic designed specifically for deep-lying sides who were unlikely to pressure him.

England always has a tendency to provoke extreme reactions. While some are–fancifully–talking about England possibly winning the Euros, there are others who seem to regard Hodgson as a lucky buffoon. The most common criticism is that he doesn’t know what his best side is. It may be, rather, that he is adapting to circumstance.

The art of international management is getting the balance right between having a clear philosophy on the one hand and dealing with rises and dips in form and the capacities of opponents on the other. If Hodgson had settled on his team last fall at the end of qualifying, there would have been no place for Eric Dier or Dele Alli. What he has done over the course of qualifying is to develop two shapes–a 4-3-3 and a 4-3-1-2–both of which offer the defense more protection than was offered by the 4-2-3-1 of the World Cup, and then slot players into it.

His substitutions against Russia seemed to invite pressure, but against Wales he was ruthless and effective, using Vardy and then Marcus Rashford high up the pitch in wide areas to force the Welsh wingbacks back and so open up the flanks for Danny Rose and Walker.

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Making six changes against Slovakia was a risk, partly designed to rest players, particularly the fullbacks. But the use of Sturridge wide and Vardy at center forward seemed reasonable enough as selections based on form. Generally, Slovakia sat deep enough to frustrate Vardy, but when it did push up, he seized the opportunity to get behind its back line, outpacing Martin Skrtel after 17 minutes only to hit his shot straight at Slovakia goalkeeper Matus Kozacik.

Only Jack Wilshere didn’t really convince, perhaps still rusty from his long layoff, and he was replaced by Rooney 10 minutes into the second half. Kane’s introduction with 14 minutes remaining brought a switch to the 4-3-1-2. By then the die was cast, though: formations mattered little. This was England battering away, putting ball after ball into the box, hoping for a break. The biggest criticism, perhaps, was the lack of threat presented from set plays.

For all the frustration, the fact is England has played as well in this tournament as it has in any since 2004. It hasn’t been far off winning all three games with ease. Yes, a more surgical approach or a moment of individual brilliance would have been helpful, but the capacity to unlock a packed defense is not what wins tournaments. That potential meeting with France aside, the signs remain good.

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