If one has learnt anything from England’s three group games at Euro 2016, it’s that they are not well versed in the art of scoring goals. It’s a seemingly simple thing; you put the ball in the net with your foot or your head (or your hand if the referee is not looking).
But the engineering behind it is much more complex. You need a certain set of players, with a certain set of complementing skills and a certain operational fidelity in transferring your practice sessions, your plans, your tactics and your moves to the real game. And with this structured certainty, you need a dash of the uncertain. Something, or rather someone, who deconstructs the long process and finds a method to get the result without the required chemical reaction between individual elements.
You see football, at the end of the day, is just like chemistry, and no this is no Walter White speaking. Your team needs to be a stable compound of its constituent elements, but to bring about an accelerated reaction, you need a catalyst. England’s football side doesn’t have a catalyst.
Against Slovakia, they ran, passed, crossed and shot their socks off — 27 chances created, 35 crosses made, 30 shots taken — but they still couldn’t manage to put the ball into the net. It was a frustrating goalless draw, one that was marked by England’s blunt attack and Slovakia’s sharp defence.
England needed just one point to advance, and Roy Hodgson took the opportunity to experiment with his team. He made six changes, a couple each in each third of the field. Predictably, Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge, goalscorers from the last game against Wales, replaced the struggling Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling in attack; Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson came in for Wayne Rooney and Dele Alli in midfield; and Nathaniel Clyne and Ryan Bertrand replaced fullbacks Kyle Walker and Danny Rose.
It made sense. With just a draw needed to advance, Hodgson not only rested a few key players, but also tried finding out his best XI. It’s always good to be wiser about your strenghts and weaknesses. And now he knows a few things about his squad.
Things like Wilshere is not the answer to the midfield. And that Clyne is a pretty good back-up for Walker. That Henderson and Dier form a more than decent partnership in midfield. And that England, for all their toil in front of goal, couldn’t score because at the end of the day they are just not good enough. They are bunch of above average players strung together to form a team, one that desperately misses a world class match-winner.
England need a man to take the game by the scruff of its neck when all else fails, a man who can produce a moment of wonderful magic and deliver. They need their very own Gareth Bale, the Welsh talisman who scored again on Monday — for the third time in three matches at Euro 2016 — as the Dragons topped Group B with six points.
England started the game just the way they have started every game in the Euros so far: With lots of possession and high pressure. There was an early chance as well, when Clyne overlapped and sent a cross in for a lurking Vardy, who couldn’t keep his first time shot down. Minutes later, Vardy flicked a cross onto the path of Sturridge right in front of the goalmouth, but the Slovakians were alert and cleared away the danger. All this in under 10 minutes of play. But this soon became a sign of things to come: A barrage of half-chances wasted away by poor finishing and not many clear goal-scoring opportunities created.
Henderson had a good game. He created a lot of chances with his incisive long passing. England’s first good chance came through the Liverpool man. His pass from around the halfway line put Vardy through. The Leicester City striker beat Martin Skrtl for pace, but his one-on-one finish was saved by an onrushing Matúš Kozáčik. What followed for the rest of the first half was much of the same. Nothing you haven’t seen in England’s first halves in the last two games.
Adam Lallana was somehow involved in almost every England move, but he could not administer the killing blow; whether he was shooting wide on a Vardy lay-off near the edge of the box, or crossing to Henderson from the left for the shot at goal eventually being blocked, or rushing in and latching on to Clyne’s cutback in the box and having his shot at goal parried away by the goalkeeper. He floated like a butterfly, but never stung like a bee.
In all this, Clyne impressed. He was just as industrious as Walker had been for the past two games and kept running down the right flank. Dier and Henderson released him many times and he came good with a cross in the box, only for the forwards to not make full use of it. So many of England’s chances came from the right. But goals seemed like a distant mirage, one that disappears as you approach in desperate thirst and in search of relief.
Hodgson ended the experiment in the second half; he had learnt enough and he wanted to win now. He got back Rooney for Wilshere and brought in Alli for Lallana before the hour-mark. But there was hardly a discernible difference; England still passed around a lot, and still without the end product. Kane came on for Sturridge later, but again to no effect.
At the end of 90 minutes, one was left with a clear and indisputable impression: The Three Lions do not have that one man whom they can bank upon to do something outrageous, something extraordinary when ordinary play is not bearing fruits. They lack any sort of killer instinct, or cutting edge, or a sniper’s aim. You could use any of the clichés for the English team; they all fit them like a suit tailored at Saville Row. They were decent throughout, but Slovakia’s defence, led by the immovable Skrtl, was stubborn and just refused to break down.
Common sense says to not read much into this stalemate. That it is just a result of the expanded format, Switzerland-France ended goalless too. But while Slovakia wait for word on their qualification status to the knockout round, one is forced to wonder about England’s goalscoring problem.
A goal in their first game against Russia came from a set piece, a brilliant one-off free-kick from Dier. They got lucky for their equaliser in the second game against Wales. And they now failed to score in their final group game against Slovakia. This is a cause for worry; many chances have gone begging, many haven’t come about, many were just half a chance. No denying that they have played well, dominated opponents, kept possession and created opportunities. And do keep in mind that their opponents have hardly tested them in defence.
But the thing with missed chances is that they don’t matter if you win. But they will matter when England face a quality side in knockouts. England play the runner up from Group F on 27 June in the round-of-16. There is a chance that their opponents could be Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, a team that has knocked them out from major competitions twice before on penalties, at Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup. Portugal might have troubles of their own, with Ronaldo failing to find the net despite many attempts. But if they do face in England in the knockouts, expect Ronaldo to come good.
And the bad news for England is that they don’t have anyone like Ronaldo either.