LONDON – He chose the wrong team to start, but this time Roy Hodgson made the right substitutions and the 2-1 win over Wales on Thursday sees England with one foot in the knockout stage of Euro 2016.
Victory over Slovakia on Monday will ensure England top Group B. A point against Slovakia will be enough for a place in the top two — and could yet be enough to win the group, if Wales fails to beat Russia. Even defeat would probably see England qualify as one of the four best third-placed teams. Realistically, if not mathematically, England is through to the next round.
England and its supporters live to fight another day, sadly in the case of some of its fans, probably in a literal sense.
Daniel Sturridge’s stoppage time winner against Wales was huge and historical — it was the first time England had come from being behind at halftime to win a match at a major finals in 12 attempts. However, the caption on one French television station — “Sturridge save the Queen” — may have been stretching credibility.
Hodgson belatedly threw caution to the wind after a first-half display against a stubborn Wales which was more perspiration than inspiration. Joe Hart will have had nightmares after being beaten by Gareth Bale’s 35-yard free-kick, but England was pedestrian, with Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane particularly ineffective.
In the 1-1 draw with Russia, Hodgson’s substitutions were typically conservative, but this has been a tournament where changes have proved crucial. At halftime against Wales, on came Jamie Vardy, who equalized with his fourth goal in his last five England appearances, and Sturridge, who may just have saved Hodgson’s job. It meant in Group B, substitutes had scored five of the 11 goals by England, Wales, Slovakia and Russia — almost 50 percent.
Hodgson even overdosed with his strikers, sending on Marcus Rashford with 17 minutes remaining, but despite its deserved victory, England’s celebrations must be guarded. The manager still gives the impression of not really knowing his best team or formation. At halftime against Wales, he took of two players who had been anonymous and replaced them with strikers who were fresh and hungry. Not exactly rocket science, but it worked even if England was far from convincing.
“It’s certainly my best double substitution in this Euros, but we’ve only had two games,” said Hodgson and it was difficult to know whether he was being serious of self-deprecating.
Euro 2016 has also been notable for decisive late strikes with 10 goals scored in the 87th minute onward.
Wales’ rearguard action had repelled everything England had thrown at it since Vardy’s equalizer until the second minute of added time, and Hodgson admitted: “If I had been watching from afar and not been with England and watching Wales play some other opponent, I would have felt very sorry for them. But they will have to excuse me not feeling sorry for them because I want to be pleased with ourselves.”
Whether this is a new Hodgson remains to be seen. He was almost forced to field the side that did the job against Wales and is not a naturally adventurous manager, but he must surely stay with and build on England’s encouraging second-half performance in Lens. Topping the group means playing one of the third-placed sides so a win is a significant win bonus when England meets Slovakia. Victory for Slovakia would see it finish first; Wales could also grab top spot while Russia can still qualify in the photo-finish finale to Group B.
The jaded Kane and the ineffectual Sterling have probably played their last games, certainly as starters, in France. Hodgson needs to find a system to accommodate Vardy and Sterling with a 4-3-1-2 formation the best bet, Wayne Rooney operating behind the twin strikers.
As Hodgson prepares for the game in Saint-Etienne, the attention will inevitably still be on those following England in France. There is little doubt an orchestrated, carefully planned exodus from Russia by almost professional thugs has instigated much of the trouble inside and outside stadiums. The attitude of the French police, whose batons are always on a hair-trigger, has been too often to inflame situations rather than defuse them.
But it is still sickening to see boozed-up England fans wearing the Union flag as a sign of aggression chanting songs about World War II, marching through city centers and proclaiming innocence when fights break out or the police step in. Such “songs” are not banter, and when hundreds of the mindless morons gather in town centers, it is not for a social drink and to discuss the latest tactical developments of the tournament.
Such loutish antics inevitably attract reaction, be it from locals, the police or hyper-violent Russian super-thugs. Yes, they are a minority compared with the tens of thousands of England fans at Euro 2016 who have given the team magnificent support. But a thousand or so followers who believe they are just having a bit of fun have once again seen England threatened by UEFA with expulsion. Even if, legally, this would be an almost impossible sanction to impose, it is an indication of how seriously European football’s ruling body takes the continued English disease.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.