By Manish Pandey.
After a disappointing late draw for England and a boosting late win for Wales, the stakes of the second round of games in Group B have risen.
England having controlled most of the game against Russia, failed to take the chances they created and allowed Russia to grab a late equaliser. There was lots of promise from the England forward players but very little output and substance. Adam Lallana missed 2 relatively easy chances, Harry Kane was lethargic and ineffective and Raheem Sterling’s decision making was very questionable.
The big talking point before the tournament was England’s ability (or inability) to defend properly as a unit. James Milner and Dele Alli were weak in clearing the ball. Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill were ball watching which allowed Vasili Berezutski to climb over Danny Rose and score the equaliser. In the crucial moment, England as a defensive unit failed.
The tactics and in game management of Roy Hodgson also left a lot to be desired. The decision to take off Wayne Rooney was bizarre. Rooney was not only the best player on the pitch, but he kept a calm hold on proceedings and had the experience and leadership to help England close out the game. Whilst Jack Wilshere has a wonderful technique and creative mind, England did not need his unpredictability at that time.
Wilshere was involved in losing the ball on England’s left when he went charging forward, resulting in the corner kick which preceded the goal.
After going a goal ahead and switching to a counter-attack, Hodgson persisted with the ineffective Kane, instead of bringing on the pacier Jamie Vardy or even Marcus Rashford.
Such decisions cost England 2 points against Russia and could cost them all 3 points against Wales.
Wales were by no means impressive in performance nor was Gareth Bale a big threat in the game. Tournament matches though, are decided on moments. Wales had the character and self-belief to grab the moment.
Gareth Bale scored a wonderful free-kick. Hal Robson-Kanu ensured he got some type of contact to score the late winner. In contrast to England, Wales defended valiantly as a unit, led by Ashley Williams.
Unlike Hodgson, Wales manager Chris Coleman got his decisions correct. He acted decisively, introducing Joe Ledley, five weeks after breaking his leg, and Hal Robson Kanu from the bench. A lucky 13 minutes later Ledley began a move that ended with Robson-Kanu scoring.
England will have to be tactically smart to cope with Wales.
Wales employed a 3-4-3 formation against Slovakia, with Aaron Ramsey and Jonny Williams very narrow either side of Gareth Bale, allowing the full backs to occupy the space. The 3 centre-backs were very comfortable, as they should be having played a 3 at the back system through qualifying.
England should look at the Belgium vs Italy game to learn how not to play against 3 centre-backs.
Belgium had a lone striker in Romelu Lukaku, isolated against 3 centre-backs. Therefore England must try and occupy as many of the centre-backs as possible. Playing another striker is an option. Pushing the midfield further forward is another option.
The space to exploit in any back 3 system is always down the sides. So England must push the full backs high up the pitch. Kyle Walker and Danny Rose are central to England’s attacking success. The midfielders must also occupy wide areas. England have to try and stretch Wales across the entirety of the pitch. This in turn creates space in the middle of the pitch to exploit.
England also have to be wary of the counter-attacking threat posed by Gareth Bale. Wales enjoy playing on the back foot so they can have an effective counter.
There is no one way to defend against Gareth Bale, but there are ways to try and limit his influence by improving the defensive positions of the defenders.
As a general rule, one of full backs should always remain behind Bale, whilst the other full back pushes forward. Chris Smalling should also remain back and create a 2v1 situation against Bale to try and crowd him. Eric Dier should act as a defensive screen to prevent supporting runners and stop the ball getting to Bale.
It would though be a mistake to focus purely on Bale. Wales play very much like a team. Bale is the difference maker but the qualities brought by Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and Jonny Williams cannot be underestimated.
England could also have a problem in midfield. Wayne Rooney will not get the same amount of time on the ball as he did against Russia. Rooney notoriously struggles when pressed quickly and not given much time on the ball. Therefore if England are to retain possession, they must ensure there is always a release option, even if that means being defensive and passing the ball backwards.
It is imperative for England to take any chances they create, and the best way to do that is to get the best finishers on the pitch. Too many of the chances on Saturday fell to Lallana and Sterling who are not renowned finishers as they showed on Saturday. Ultimately goals win you matches.
Perhaps the best gauge of how far behind England are in international football is by comparing them to the experienced Italy and Germany.
Germany managed to defend a 1 goal lead resolutely, but also got the killer 2nd goal on the counter-attack late on. The same with Italy, who produced a masterclass in defending, but also counter-attacking late on to get the killer 2nd goal. England failed to get a killer 2nd goal and instead conceded a late equaliser.
It is always difficult to find the right balance between attack and defence. It is a balance England will need to find if they are to progress in this tournament.
England face an uphill struggle, can they deliver?