Tomorrow will see the England side step out onto the pitch together for the first time since their ill-fated Euro 2016 campaign. And what better way to judge whether a change of management can turn England’s fortunes than by taking to the field against one of the teams that plagued them in France this Summer?
Although it was Iceland who dealt the decisive blow to send the Three Lions packing, it was Slovakia who prevented England from winning their group. If the Three Lions had been able to break down a stubborn Slovakian side, they would never have had to play Iceland in the first place, and would have found themselves on the kinder side of the draw.
Admittedly, on paper a last 16 match against the eventual champions, Portugal, looks a sterner test than minnows, Iceland, but who knows what would have happened had England beaten Slovakia? Now it is the time for Sam Allardyce’s side to right some wrongs from this summer and prove that they are still one of the world’s footballing powerhouses.
The problem when the two sides met in the summer was that Slovakia limited their ambitions to stopping England from playing in the hopes of holding out for a 0-0 draw. Whatever else might be said about that gameplan, it cannot be denied that it worked, as a goalless draw matched England against their Icelandic opponents.
The Slovakia match brought feelings of déjá vu for Pompey fans like myself, as no matter how much England kept the ball and no matter how many attacks they launched at the Slovakian goal, they simply couldn’t find a way past the eleven-man wall of Slovakians, something which proved to be a problem for Pompey all of that season.
Breaking down teams who set up in this way will be one of Allardyce’s biggest challenges, as the clubs he has managed have never really had the problem of opposing sides sitting deep to kill games. This is the first time he has been in charge of a team which will consistently have a far higher reputation than their opponents, so the challenge of dismantling defensive teams will prove to be a new challenge for Big Sam.
Allardyce’s reputation is as an old fashioned manager whose no-nonsense style is not best suited to passing through well organised defences. However, Allardyce has shown himself to be versatile in his style of football, particularly during his last few weeks at West Ham. It is this philosophy that he will need to put into practice against the less adventurous teams such as Slovakia.
England announced their starting eleven for the match on Friday evening, choosing to be open with their team selection rather than keeping it under wraps until the latest possible moment. This would suggest that they are not worried about Slovakia countering their tactical plans, maybe because they are expecting them to play with the same defensive mindset as they did in the summer.
The team selection is fairly predictable, with only three changes having been made from the side that lost to Iceland. John Stones has come in for Chris Smalling, while Jordan Henderson replaces Dele Alli and Adam Lallana has come in for Daniel Sturridge.
Some of the more drastic England fans would have been hoping for a complete overhaul to the team which let everyone down at the Euros. Many people would have wanted a midfield partnership of Danny Drinkwater and Mark Noble, with Wayne Rooney also being axed, along with Joe Hart.
In reality, all Allardyce is doing at this early stage is fine-tuning his England squad, and more wholesale changes could be seen when Allardyce has had more time to settle into his new job. One of the only surprises in the squad was the inclusion of Michail Antonio in his squad. The West Ham man has impressed in the Premier League over the last two seasons and many agree that his chance his long overdue.
The only part of the selection I disagree with is the inclusion of Jordan Henderson. While his Liverpool performances are never terrible, they are rarely exceptional and my feeling is that his status as Liverpool captain gives him an advantage over other players vying for a central midfield place in the England side, and that he is, perhaps, less deserving than others.
The other difficult decisions Allardyce had to make are ones I agree with wholeheartedly. The first of these is the decision for Joe Hart to be kept on as England’s first-choice keeper. Although the decision was made easier by Fraser Forster’s injury, I was impressed by Hart’s mentality when finding himself dropped by Pep Guardiola.
Rather than being content to sit on the bench at Manchester City, he has relocated to Turin to go on loan to Torino. Hart’s decision to try his hand abroad is a brave one and shows how much his England place means to him, as he is prepared to uproot his comfortable life at home in order to ensure he gets first team football that will keep him his place. Therefore, he is deserving of the faith Allardyce has shown in him.
The other decision is the big one about whether to keep Wayne Rooney on as England captain. Like the rest of the England team, he didn’t cover himself in glory in the summer, and seemed to retreat into his shell when times were difficult against Iceland, but he is easily the best leader in the England squad at the moment.
While Eric Dier and John Stones are the obvious candidates to replace him after the next World Cup, neither of them are ready for the burden of the captaincy yet, so England need an experienced figure to help steady the ship that is their fortunes, and let Allardyce guide them through a difficult few months. That does not mean that Rooney has to start every England game, but his international experience and passion will be invaluable to the squad in the coming months.
A change that we may see under Allardyce’s management, and I have to say it is a welcome one, is that there is unlikely to be a bias towards the more fashionable clubs. Under Big Sam’s predecessors, there was evidence that players from “bigger clubs” were more likely to be selected for England, regardless of their performances.
However, having managed smaller clubs himself, Allardyce is unlikely to pick players on the basis of what team they play for. It is likely that anybody who performs well at club level could work their way into the England setup, as has been seen with Michail Antonio being called up.
Although qualifying for major tournaments rarely seems to e a problem for England sides, and seldom gives any indication of how the tournament will go for the team, it is important that England get off to a winning start against Slovakia. They need to put the Iceland debacle behind them at the earliest possible opportunity in order to win back the support of the English public.
The same happened after the 2014 World Cup, when England crashed out in the group stages under Roy Hodgson. The attendances at Wembley for their next few games were shockingly low, and only a 100% win record in the European Championship qualifying group won the supporters back to Hodgson’s side.
After an even more damaging competition, it is important that Allardyce’s England dissociate themselves from Hodgson’s England with an emphatic win against Slovakia. They need to send out a clear message that they will no longer be pushovers when it comes to major tournaments, and that they are, again, a team to be feared.
Only then will the fans get back on board with the team, and only with the fans’ support can Sam Allardyce lead England into a new, more successful, era for English football.