England vs. Russia | It wasn’t that bad..

This is possibly the best England team I’ve seen.*
*I emphasise the word team here. Lots of caveats to this statement such as ‘in parts’, ‘team performance’, ‘cohesion’, ‘understanding’ etc. It’s a sensationalist statement to draw you in. I think. I hope.

The first major England tournament I remember is World Cup 2002. The final was on my birthday, and England were knocked out by Ronaldinho looping it over Seaman. I still don’t think he meant it. I’ve gotten excited by the prospect, but I don’t recall seeing England play this well at a finals. Perhaps I appreciate the game more. Perhaps, as one passionate tweeter suggested yesterday, I’m blind. But I actually believe this.

England kicked off their campaign yesterday with what I would call an ‘encouraging draw’. Pundits, however, would probably call it ‘a draw which feels more like a loss’. In my eyes, England have been slammed in the past for not understanding tournament football – and that’s where the small irk about potentially poor game management vs. Russia comes in. However, that said, a slow start is never a bad thing. Tournament football in it’s nature is a game-by-game thing. It really depends on how the lessons from Marseille are learned, built upon and improved.

Let’s start with something great; I loved this move by England; the movement and fluidity between the players in white is great, and (admittedly helped by poor Russian positioning), the right hand side was very fruitful.

The full-backs were fantastic
In the first half – England were really, really good. I almost typed sensational, but I was lambasted on Twitter for enjoying England’s overall performance last night, so I’ll keep the tone lower. The fact was, they pressed well, the full-backs – across the entire game for me – were sensational going forward. In Kyle Walker, we’re finally seeing a player with the pace, power and dribbling nous to get ahead on the over- and under-lap to cut back for one of the central players to shoot. The pass to Rooney was one of a few times I can remember a full-back for England getting past his man, and asking questions of the masses of Russians in the middle of the box. And then we have Danny Rose – The drill across the 6-yard box was begging for Kane or Alli to surge past any man who stood in their way to nick something onto it.

Credits for David Sumpter of Soccermatics – Check out his book!

As you can see above in the graphic by David Sumpter, the passing frequency between Rose, Dier and Rooney is immediately striking, as is the average position of Walker – he was such a pivotal outlet on the right hand side.

Can’t win games unless you finish your dinner
The Wales game earlier in the day highlighted that the most scrappy goals can be the most important – And for all their dominance and wonderful display, England could not find that level of scrappy-ness in the first half to force the Russians out of their shell. Look at this average position map – Russia effectively had 6 across the back line 3 or 4 times in the first half, with the full backs really pinning the wide men back. My favourite part was the trust Walker and Rose had in Dier, Smalling and Cahill to be alert to any counter attack. The role of Dier, as highlighted below, cannot be forgotten.

Sumpter 1

I’d let Eric Dier protect me and my family
Admittedly, that’s a bit far and quite superlative, but my point is thus. The role that Dier played last night was immense. Apart from the outrageous free-kick he struck with absolute beauty, he had a dominant performance. Playing the role of passing recycler, he finished the game with 81 touches of which were 68 passes and a passing accuracy of 89.7% (61/68 completed)

And hey. While we’re on the subject, lets talk about the passing ability of that England line-up. An average passing accuracy of 82.9% – And that’s excluding Hart (60.7%). A long way from “conservative” “long ball Woy” I have heard in the past.

Did Rooney tire after 50 or so minutes?
The decision to substitute Rooney was blasted after the result. “Why sub the captain” people cried (of course, these same people wanted Rooney no where near the starting eleven before the game kicked off) “He’s been terrific tonight” they cried. But was there something missing from the latter end of his performance? Let’s have a look at his touchmaps. I’ve spit it into 20 minute chunks.

So perhaps there isn’t *really* anything to be said about that apart from the eye test. After having a look at this, I got to thinking. How did the ‘touches’ that each team took change at each stage? From the narratives, England bossed the first half, had a poor start to the second, a solid middle, and a bad end. Does that story follow?

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Yeah – It seems like the goal was coming. Russia took it upon themselves to dominate the game, whilst the in the first half an hour, looked to take the game to Russia. It’s just a shame that pure clear cut chances weren’t created.

A slice more of context? Why not.

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You can actually see the blue dots (Russia) growing more dominant, especially down their right, England’s left. Something to be wary of, perhaps. But that first 0-15 minutes. Wow. England actually dominated.

Game management – What to do to ‘see it out’?
Much was made of Roy Hodgson’s substitutions. Many didn’t rate Kane, Raheem or Lallana in the second half (perhaps they have a point, perhaps not) and admittedly, it might have made sense to bring on J*mie V*rdy to run at the centre-backs of Russia. Who, actually, I thought had a very good game. Both of them knew their strengths and weaknesses, and were rarely drawn out of position by the England attack (apart from perhaps *that* Rooney chance which Akinfeev saved magnificently). I felt like they used every single year of their experience to their benefit to keep England out of the 6 yard box. Which worked really well (see Michael Caley’s ExG map below; larger dots, clearer cut chances, the rough sum being rough sum of the probability of goals England coulda shoulda woulda scored from the shots they took etc)

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Back to substitions, the name James Milner screams calm, effective, conservative play, and perhaps he should have replaced Raheem Sterling earlier – Or even Rooney, if it was inevitable that Rooney was coming off. The fact that Rose likes to marauder forward to great effect means having someone like Milner who runs tirelessly all game can help the foil – But you lose the direct running of Sterling (though, his ability to pass early, or shoot at the right time will be one of the first things that Pep sorts out. I hope!)

Conclusions, and Wales.
The best part for me is that England could have been carried away by one brilliant game had they won comprehensively. This allows the squad to experience and learn from their mistakes. No doubt the backroom team will have each player assess their own performance and I am almost certain that we will see a very different England. Because of poor performance? Because of the frailties we saw?

No. I feel like Roy actually has been smart about this and will change the team and system depending on the opposition he is facing. Analysts must have watched footage and understood how Wales and Slovakia play. The Welsh game is fascinating for two reasons; first, to see how each team reacts; and second, because of the 5-3-1-1/3-4-2-1 formation thing that Coleman has them playing. The flanks and middle will be overloaded, and Wales will also look to sit and hit on the counter. The amount of long balls that Wales hit (84) is the highest of the tournament so far (not including the games today [Sunday 12th])

So, yeah. I felt OK after last night. Nothing from the chances England had screamed WE WOZ ROBBED to me, and I can understand that the goal was unlucky. However, 1 point is better than 0, and I honestly believe that this young squad played some scintillating football last night in periods – Just were lacking that final spark.

My message to the wonderful folk who have got to the bottom of this? Keep your Spurs & Leicester biases at home, take these 23 players at their merit and enjoy the spectacle. There’s some great football to be watched if you stop tutting when England fail to cross into the box early. Watch the movement, the direction of play & the cohesion + players understanding each other shone through across the team. Last night was a good start, and there’s so much to improve, I feel genuinely excited.

Finally, England actually played well in a game at a tournament – I can’t wait to see what’s next.

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