More of the same was very much the taste left in my mouth following England’s 1-0 victory over Slovakia on Sunday. Although it’s only the first game of Sam Allardyce’s reign, and perhaps early to expect enormous changes, there were quite a few Euros hangover elements that Allardyce actively imposed.
England’s starting XI was much the same as it was under Hodgson, but the message coming through the media was that it was the same personnel with a different shape. The expectation was that Rooney would start in the number 10 role of a 4-2-3-1 that he’s been playing for Mourinho at club level, but he was once again deployed as England’s midfield playmaker in the left central midfield role of a 4-3-3.
The primary issue created by this is a disconnect between midfield and attack. With both Rooney and Henderson preferring to stay behind the ball, England had no one receiving the ball between Slovakia’s lines of defence.
This issue became extreme as England struggled to move the ball with enough speed. Captain Rooney often exacerbated this issue by taking multiple touches and then bringing the ball under control before looking up for his next move.
When it did come time for Rooney to pick out a pass, he regularly ignored short, vertical options to feet or through-balls in favour of hitting high, looping passes out to the full-backs. These Hollywood passes look visually impressive, but are slow enough for the opposition to re-shape their defence. This limits the full-back receiving the ball to passing backwards or crossing in to a crowded box full of stationary targets. Although athletic freaks, both Kyle Walker and Danny Rose remain mediocre crossers of the ball, especially when under pressure.
Quite a bit of passing, in Big Sam's England debut.
Lallana was found a lot, Kane wasn't. pic.twitter.com/t45P0pkIXG
— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) September 4, 2016
11tegen11’s pass map shows that despite being deployed as England’s defensive midfielder, Eric Dier was the most successful of the midfield three in finding the forwards with vertical passes. The map also shows that Adam Lallana was the only player to find Harry Kane on five or more occasions.
That is a bleak statistic, but it also highlights England’s main positive from Sunday’s game. The main tactical difference between England at the Euros and Allardyce’s first game in charge was that Sterling and Lallana played on opposite flanks. Both are right footed, which means that one must operate more like a traditional winger and one will spend more time bringing the ball inside.
Previously, Sterling had been deployed on the left and tasked with making diagonal movements in behind defences to receive the ball in forward-like positions where he could shoot across goal. Here, Sterling moved to the right and was tasked with playing wider and stretching the Slovak defence with his pace and high-positioning.
Lallana, on the left, was now able to do what he does best: combine with his full-back to make space, receive the ball on the half-turn and create chances from left-channel. Adam’s man-of-the-match performance was rightfully capped with a goal that showcased his greatest asset – his intelligent first touch.
‘Big Sam’ has garnered a reputation as a defensive and even negative coach for his string of management roles at clubs in the bottom half of the premier league table. He didn’t bring 4-4-2, sitting deep or ‘lump it up to the big man’ style football with him to the national team. He hasn’t shown a lack of desire to play attacking, dominating football but he has perhaps shown, so far, a lack of ability to coach it.
Still, top level football is a game of marginal gains, and if Allardyce can make a change as positive as the swapping of Sterling and Lallana for every game in charge, then there are reasons to be hopeful.