About That England-Portugal Match

I’m impressed. Roy Hodgson managed to do something that no manager in the Premiership managed over the last 12 months. He somehow managed to nullify both Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy. Those two, who scored forty-nine league goals between them, never even looked dangerous against a very poor Portugal side, even after the visitors went down to 10 men.

What tactical stoke of genius did Roy produce to achieve this unprecedented deed? Don’t look to the reported starting formation for clues, because it bore no semblance to how England actually lined up after the opening kickoff.

In theory, England played 4–4–2 with a diamond midfield. Vardy and Kane would partner up front with Wayne Rooney in the hole behind them. Eric Dier would screen the back line while Dele Alli and James Milner would play on the sides. I’d rather have seen two ball-winning central midfielders and genuine wide midfielders to spread the pitch, but this didn’t look too bad. At the very least, we’d finally get to see Kane and Vardy playing some serious minutes together up top. If you absolutely have to have Wayne Rooney in the lineup, then this is probably the best one could hope for.

This was, however, a false hope. England never played this formation.

Instead, we got something closer to this. Rooney played by himself at the front of the formation, forcing Vardy and Kane out wide. To be fair, this is precisely what we probably should have expected. Hodgson, whose owlish face ran the rule over the Leicester squad at the King Power several times over the last year, still seems to think that Jamie Vardy is best deployed as a winger.

Roy Hodgson is the only person on the planet who believes this.

Even more baffling is sticking Kane out wide. Harry Kane wanders out on the wings from time to time for Spurs, but he’s a center forward through-and-through. I’ll even give Hodgson bonus points for putting Kane on set piece taking duty. Without Andy Carroll in the squad, Kane is the only England forward with any hope of turning a cross into the net. He’s not the best taker of corners. He’s not even a good taker of corners.

Watching the match you got the impression that all of the England players had been instructed to find the spot on the pitch where they were the most comfortable. Then they were to look wistfully at that spot from the place where Hodgson was actually asking them to play.

It wasn’t all bad, but it there was almost nothing good, either. Portugal were dire, and after Bruno Alves earned perhaps the most-deserved red card in the history of “friendlies,” they sat back and ran out the clock. It’s telling that, for me, the most positive thing to take from the match was the impressive way Harry Kane refused to make a meal of Alves’ challenge. Good on him.

The fact that the tiring Portugal time finally surrendered a goal when Smalling headed in a Raheem Sterling cross didn’t do much to change my impression of the squad. England are a young, pacey squad, but they play at a saunter. The fullbacks provide what width there is to be had, which is very little. Instead, they rely on their creative midfielders to try to unlock packed defenses with short passes.

And if that doesn’t work? They’re boned. England don’t have a plan B. You can frustrate England by ceding possession and packing the box, denying the short pass. Even when England have the opportunity to counter with pace, they slow it down and let the other team get pack. They’re simple to defend, and their response to frustration is to try the same thing over and over.

Not that anyone asked me, but given the makeup of England’s squad, there’s a “right” way to do it: a 5–3–2. England’s center-halfs lack pace and cohesion and you just can’t trust Stones in a a back four at this point. However, if you play three center-halfs, now you have room for Stones between Smalling and Cahill. You also give your fullbacks more freedom to get forward, which makes a lot of sense as Hodgson brought two right and two left backs. You can play three central midfielders rather than making the likes of Alli and Milner have to pretend to be wide men. Maybe go with Alli, Dier, and Wilshere? It doesn’t matter as there are a lot of interchangeable parts in the midfield. Finally, Kane and Vardy play up top. They’re both geniuses at working spaces between defenders and they seem to understand each other remarkably well.

It’ll never happen, of course. Instead, we’ll see Vardy out on the left wing, seeing less of the ball than any other player on the pitch. England will scrape through the group stages and go out in the quarters. Probably on penalties, because this is England, after all.

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