England never learn, do they? How many times must they botch up the group stage before they realise there is an advantage to be gained from finishing top of your group, especially if that group isn’t particularly strong. Was the final group game, when England needed a win to finish top of their group, really the time to make 4 changes – 6, if you include scoring super subs Vardy and Sturridge starting the match this time? Would it not have made more sense to maintain momentum through continuity by starting with the same just-about-victorious team against Wales and then testing the subs and resting key players where necessary?
But then Roy has made something of a habit of making baffling selection decisions, from leaving fleet footed Vardy sat on the bench against Russia when the team was crying out for pace to scare the bejesus out of the ageing opposition defenders, to not starting Vardy and Sturridge against Wales when it was clear to everyone and their dog that Sterling and Kane needed to be replaced. To be fair to the England manager, the team started well against Slovakia and created some good chances against a Slovakian team who were happy to play Hadrian’s Wall in their own area, and how different things might have been had Vardy taken his chance when put through by a over the top ball rather than shoot straight at the keeper. A Lallana shot in the first half was also parried by the keeper and later on, Dele Alli was unlucky to have a shot blocked on the line.
Yet there was no disguising England’s often ponderous build up play which enabled the retreating Slovakians to get back in ample time to block England’s attack, nor the lack of width and penetrative movement necessary to unlock such a stalwart defence. As the match wore on, England became increasingly ragged and disjointed, and seemed to be playing futile ‘knocking heads against brick walls’ football. So not much of a surprise that the score ended 0-0. For a team that have created an astonishing 65 chances over the 3 group games, ironically England have lacked a cutting edge, playing more like toothless tigers than marauding lions.
So now, as a result of coming second, England find themselves in the tougher side of the draw with the might of France, Spain, Italy and Germany. And Portugal may yet join the ‘Side of Death’. There is only one way this usually ends – heroic effort marred by some unlucky, unfair, controversial incident and/or penalties. Is it really going to be any different this time? Why, oh why, do we do it to ourselves?