LONDON – It had not been a good week for England manager Roy Hodgson.
Last Sunday, Greg Dyke, the outgoing chairman of the Football Association, said for Hodgson to be offered a new contract the team must “play well” even in defeat at Euro 2016. That, explained Dyke, meant: “Semifinals would be great; quarterfinals if we play well and meet one of the best sides and unfortunately lost or went out on penalties, something like that.”
Suffice to say, Hodgson was less than thrilled with the timing of Dyke’s views. On Monday, England drew 0-0 with Slovakia, a result that could have significant repercussions for the manager and the national team.
Hodgson’s current deal ends when England’s interest in the tournament is over. The present incumbent is considerably helped by a dearth of viable English or British candidates, the F.A.’s preferred options though Dyke did hint that “a foreign manager who knows English football” could be considered.
On Wednesday, Hodgson’s week suddenly got a whole lot better — apparently — when Arnor Ingvi Traustason scored Iceland’s stoppage-time winner against Austria. Instead of facing Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo in Nice on Monday, England will play the Land Of The Rising Sons.
While a country with a population of 330,000 might be the preferred option, Iceland has not reached the round of 16 by accident. In the qualifiers, it beat Holland home and away, defeating Turkey and the Czech Republic in Reykjavik. Iceland was undefeated in the group stage, drawing with Portugal and Hungary before defeating Austria.
It is well-drilled, organized, athletic, has a growing inner belief and is passionate with enormous national pride. Iceland will play a cautious, pragmatic style against England, which does not have an outstanding record of breaking down packed defenses. England arrived in France with what many, including this observer, reckoned was the strongest set of strikers at the finals. Against Slovakia, England had 30 attempts at goal with only five on target, which indicates the poor quality of finishing ratio to the quantity of chances.
Hodgson was vilified for the six changes he made against Slovakia which backfired with honors. The English are obsessed with resting players, both at club and international level. Slovakia was a match England needed to win to clinch first place and half a dozen changes, including leaving out captain Wayne Rooney, can only be justified by the result. A goal-less draw did not justify Hodgson’s selection.
The manager said he rested fullbacks Kyle Walker and Danny Rose “because it replicates what happens at Spurs.” That is nonsense. Walker and Rose may be left out for less important League Cup or Europa League games, but for matches that matter, Mauricio Pochettino always picks the England pair. Slovakia mattered so Hodgson’s reasoning does not stand up.
The Slovakia stalemate saw Wales topping Group B and meant England is in the harder half of the draw. Wales captain Gareth Bale was understandably elated as it prepared to play Northern Ireland on Saturday and said: “A moral victory for us, a bit of bragging rights that we finished top and it’s always nice to get one over on the English.”
If England overcomes Iceland, its likely opponent is France, unless the Republic of Ireland can pull off another miracle against the hosts on Sunday, having beaten Italy 1-0. Then one of Germany, Italy or Spain awaits in the semifinals. On the other hand, the winner of Wales vs. Northern Ireland, who play in Toulouse on Sunday, then comes up against Hungary or Belgium with, probably, Croatia in the semifinals. Not easy, but easier.
Iceland represents a double-edged sword for Hodgson, who knows it is one thing to lose to Portugal, but if England fails to win on Monday the manager can start looking for alternative employment. Dyke’s criteria did not include England being knocked out in the round of 16, which, after the failure to get out of the group stage at the 2014 World Cup, would make it unrealistic for Hodgson to remain in the job.
Perhaps surprisingly, there has been little speculation about a possible successor, which is more a comment on the lack of realistic candidates than any confidence in the man with the job at present who is still searching for his strongest lineup. While Iceland has a game plan and a settled team, Hodgson has yet to decide on a formation and starting XI four matches into the finals. Does he retain Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge in attack or recall Harry Kane? Does Rooney play deeper in midfield or a more advanced role?
The mood in England is not one of wild optimism as the match against Iceland approaches. At best it is quiet optimism based on playing Iceland instead of Portugal, and Hodgson who, clutching at straws, likes to point out that England dominated possession during the group ties against Russia, Wales and Slovakia. The problem is, it only drew with Russia and Slovakia, the two worst sides; while England beat group winner Wales, the Welsh scored five goals against Russia and Slovakia to England’s one.
With Hodgson’s job on the line, England must belatedly punch its weight at the finals instead of shadow boxing.
On Saturday, British allegiances will be put aside as the United Kingdom unites to support the Republic of Ireland, which has unsettled business with France from November 2009, when Thierry Henry’s handball in Paris went unnoticed by the officials and enabled William Gallas to level on the night, denying the visitors a probable penalty shootout lottery ticket for a trip to South Africa the following year.
Revenge for Henrygate still burns in Irish hearts. Ireland manager Martin O’Neill said the demons of the Stade de France will provide perfect motivation for his team. “Well it is, absolutely, why not?”
Karma in Lyon, the culinary capital of France, would be the perfect dish, served at any temperature.
Penalty poser: England has taken part in six shootouts at major finals, losing five.
A problem not just for England, but every team, is that at the end of extra time players who take penalties for their clubs, usually attacking players, have often been substituted.
Of the likely starting XI against Iceland, only Wayne Rooney (who has a 20 percent failure rate) and Jamie Vardy are first-choice club penalty takers for Manchester United and Leicester City, respectively. There is every chance they will have been replaced in the heat of Nice before any shootout.
The only three other players who have experience from the spot are Harry Kane, James Milner and Adam Lallana. Daniel Sturridge has scored one penalty for England against Moldova.
If England vs. Iceland goes to a shootout, players such as Eric Dier and Dele Alli will lose their penalty virginity in the most demanding of circumstances.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.