Euro 2016 — England v Russia, Wales v Slovakia

Thoughts from a sofa.

One of the most painful things in football is failing to win a game you clearly deserved to win. It hurts badly, having that win snatched away from you at the last. This is amplified when it’s the first game of a much hyped international tournament. But it’s a feeling England fans are familiar with, watching their team underwhelmingly draw opening matches of major tournaments. Still really hurts though.

England v Russia

Winning football matches just depends on scoring more goals than the opposition. This is something that still surprises, even in the wake of Leicester City’s Premier League winning season, where they were happy not to dominate possession and hit on the break.

You can control a match and look the better side with better players, as England did in their opening Euro 2016 match against Russia. But if you can’t score goals, it counts for nothing. How much sympathy do England deserve for failing to put the ball in the net. Not much, you might reasonably argue. You need to be clinical if you’re fashioning a decent number of goalscoring chances. If you can’t convert them into goals, that’s your look-out.

Blame can be attributed widely amongst players and management. Rooney, Lallana, Kane: all had presentable chances. Big questions can be asked about the absence of Jamie Vardy in part of a match where surely he would have thrived. Russia needed to chase the match at 1–0 down, which would surely lead to counterattacks able to employ his electric speed and finishing.

Instead James Milner was bought on to shore up the 1–0 win, which he failed to do and was directly responsible for the cross which led to the Russian equaliser. It was messy and brutally disappointing all round for players and staff.

Change from Sterling?

One who stood out for me as consistently frustrating was Raheem Sterling. This £50 million pound player produced one of the high points of England’s World Cup 2014 campaign when, early in a match against Italy, he unleashed a vicious shot from range. It hit the side netting on the wrong side of the post, but for a fraction of a second there was a searing rocket of hope and belief which even tricked the BBC into changing the on-screen scoreline. Sadly that was as good as it got.

In this Euro 2016 match against Russia, the supposed jewel of English football time and again failed to deliver. His final pass or cross was lacking, poor, inadequate. At other times he would demonstrate unshakable belief in himself and his ability. “What?” he appeared to ask himself, running at pace into an exposed right-back channel with time and space to think about what to do next, support arriving to his right, “I need to think about who to pass to? No, I don’t. I have loads of time and space and ability and oh I’ve been tackled.”

Another specific moment in the second half when the ball dropped high out of the sky to him, not far from the Russian six-yard box, facing the goal, no Russian players near enough to challenge him. Sterling tried and failed to control the ball when I wanted to see him shoot first time. It was a presentable goalscoring chance. A world class player would have shot. One minute he would deludedly back his ability to run at and beat players, the next he would stumble over making simple passes, the next he wouldn’t take on an ambitious shot. Not his best match.

Wales v Slovakia

There was more than a little element of luck in the goals which saw Wales beat Slovakia 2–1 in their opening match. After a jittery start when Slovakia were denied by a heroic goal-saving Ben Davies block, talisman Gareth Bale scored direct from a free kick and Wales took charge of the match.

In truth the free kick wasn’t his greatest. Body language says a lot when a player thinks their shot has a strong chance of finding the net. Replays show Bale peeping over the wall, following the flight of his strike, and fleetingly appear more surprised than anyone to see the ball beat the goalkeeper, who was at fault.

For the remainder of the first half Wales commanded and deserved their lead. It should have been doubled if a penalty had been given for Martin Skrtel’s steering elbow on the underrated Jonny Williams.

Slovakia fought back hard in the second half. They equalised with a decent goal and could have easily taken the lead. For a while the match tilted precariously back and forth, chances at both ends. It could have gone either way, but it went for Wales.

The tireless Ramsay, freed by an exceptional orchestrating performance from Joe Allen, bothered the Slovakian defence again on the edge of the penalty area. Off balance, the bleach haired one poked the ball right towards fresh substitute Hal Robson-Kanu, who found himself advanced on goal but immediately under pressure. Kanu struck, scuffed, prodded the ball. Goalkeeper and defender committed, the ball rolled almost in slow motion into the corner of the Slovakian net, sending Wales into wonderland.

Wales — England: Culture Clash

Wales saw out the match convincingly, something England could not do. There’s a much greater clarity about how Wales play. While I don’t necessarily buy that their success is as much about ‘togetherness’ as the successful marketing campaign and countless broadcasters will us to believe, I do think there’s a well-practiced zest about the side, almost an innocent energy, like giddy children taking a flight for the first time.

On the pitch yesterday this sense had returned. You might have feared the worst after indifferent recent results including a pre-tournament 3–0 friendly defeat in Sweden with few redeeming features.

Wales players and staff know each other incredibly well. With a talent pool restricted by a relatively low population, these young men — some of whom (like other home nations) were selected thanks to grandparentage rather than Welsh upbringings — have grown up together and played together for most of their careers. They have lived and played through the traumatic experience of suddenly losing their manager Gary Speed in 2011. They know their collective and individual strengths and weaknesses.

England on the other hand have the youngest squad in the tournament. Many of the side’s key players only received their first cap in the last 12 to 18 months. Although around half of yesterday’s starting 11 play for Tottenham, they can’t know each other as well and lack experience. Kane, Rose, Walker, Alli and Dier — all played when Tottenham blew up in spectacular fashion at the end of the season against Chelsea, demonstrating huge indiscipline. Each of those players were booked. For all the undoubted talent, fresh faced red faced Eric Dier looks capable of throwing his toys out of the pram at any moment, while his mate Delle Alli has a quietly menacing streak. Is it too soon to fully trust them on this stage?

On a tactical level England are almost personified by a management team that appears stuttering, confused, slightly doddery. This was reflected in coach Ray Lewington’s clanger during a training session when he exposed a notepad showing an England team line-up to the world’s press. Gleefully mocked by Wales manager Chris Coleman, who displayed a fantasy team of legends at their next training session, it starkly showed a difference. There’s a stale, fusty, political correctness about the FA and its appointment of England managers, a stiff obsession with doing things ‘properly’. This seems to flow down to stunted fearful teams.

England currently have some exceptional players. They showed their technical ability to pick apart, dominate but never dismantle Russia. They failed to convert enough chances and they failed to hold a slender lead. They do not appear to have a team, an understanding, or a (go on then) togetherness like Wales. This is why I fear for England in Thursday’s match against Wales. It might be open and rocky. It could be quite exciting for a neutral. But forced to bet on which way the game will ultimately swing, I’d have to pick Wales.

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All of the above could be academic if there’s more depressing, distressing trouble amongst the fans. UEFA have threatened to disqualify England and Russia from the tournament in such an event. This saddens me above all else.

As the world’s most popular sport, football attracts all kinds of people. This includes people who love fighting in gangs, people who love trouble. Perhaps it increases the tribal sense of belonging, the flawed fuzzy notion of fighting for a cause.

There are people who ‘play’ football because it gives them a vehicle to show how tough they are and inflict harm on other players. There are people who follow football because it gives them a vehicle for showing how tough they are by fighting. It’s an inherently masculine, idiotic problem, the compulsion to fight. A solution is as elusive as ever.

My general malaise was compounded on Sunday morning by breaking news of the Orlando LGBT nightclub massacre. It’s hard not to despair of humans sometimes. We seem more committed than ever to generating fear and hate, to dividing and destroying each other.

Sustaining our species. Looking at the current state of the world, you sometimes wonder if that’s a game humans deserve to win.