New boss makes a start which seemed to be defined by problems of his own making
Eventually, Sam Allardyce managed to come away with a victory in his first game in charge of England, a last gasp Adam Lallana goal resulting in a 1-0 win in Trnava. It was an uneven performance which failed to suggest that we really are on the brink of a brave new dawn for the national team, a display which can be largely attributed to Allardyce contriving to cause issues which he could easily have avoided.
It must be said that this isn’t an easy job for the former West Ham man. After the disastrous European Championships defeat to Iceland, goodwill towards the England team is extremely low, with significant work to be done before the fans will have anything approaching belief and optimism regarding the future. There’s little he can do during the qualification phase for the next World Cup; England are expected to progress comfortably, Roy Hodgson got little by way of credit for winning ten out of ten qualifiers prior to the last tournament and judgement will very much be reserved until we face serious competitive action (as it is, tonight’s fixture was, on paper, the toughest assignment on offer between now and 2018). Allardyce is also very much a Marmite appointment, for every person who believes his particular brand of ultra-pragmatism and robust self-belief is what’s required to take the team forward, there’s another who has never warmed to his methods and never enjoyed watching his teams play, and as such is indelibly predisposed to viewing him with extreme suspicion. However, even allowing for those circumstances, there were enough factors tonight within his control that he could have addressed yet oddly chose not to.
Firstly, following a result which must be considered possibly the worst in a tournament since losing to the United States in the 1950 World Cup, the post-Euro 2016 period represented a fine opportunity to make a completely clean break and for a new manager to go completely his own way, whatever the merits of that might be. Strangely for a man who has frequently given the impression that he insists on getting whatever he wants throughout his club career, Allardyce turned down this opportunity and picked broadly the same squad and team as employed in the summer. This meant a continuation of puzzling selection decisions, with Danny Rose preferred to Luke Shaw even before the Manchester United full back pulled out of the squad, Jordan Henderson selected today as the most advanced of a midfield three despite being given a berth in front of the back four at club level, a reluctance to pair Dele Alli and Harry Kane in close proximity to each other despite the two having immense success combining for Tottenham – Alli starting this game on the bench and Kane withdrawn shortly after his team mate came on – and Marcus Rashford not included in the squad despite being one of the few to escape the Iceland debacle without scorn and providing an option completely different to that offered by any of the other forwards in the squad.
Furthermore, the tactics remained entirely unchanged from those used in Euro 2016. This did not look in any way like a Sam Allardyce team; he has surely not been brought in by the FA to serve up a tame imitation of a Roy Hodgson team as this would not seem to suit anyone’s wishes. The approach remained a possession heavy, low tempo one; while the ball was kept acceptably enough, all too often it was in non-threatening areas and movement in the first half in particular was as good as non-existent. This led to the majority of the game being played in front of the Slovakian defence and midfield, lacking in penetration and with a distinct lack of clear cut chances produced. This 4-3-3 set up with this set of players relies far too heavily on the full backs for width, leads to the centre forward often being isolated, struggles for fluency and results in limited opposition teams becoming increasingly confident that they can hold England at bay. Indeed, the late, late Lallana goal was pretty much the only thing which separated this game and the 0-0 draw played out between the two teams in Saint-Etienne less than three months ago. England probably did just about deserve to win this game but that applied in the previous meeting too and quite rightly wasn’t enough to prevent the display from being subject to heavy criticism.
All of which leads to the man who has been a central issue for England for many years; Wayne Rooney. He was a big issue before Allardyce arrived, with his influence clearly now declining and there being superior centre forwards in the squad. Post-Euro 2016 would have been the ideal opportunity to move on from his era, the national scoring record safely under his belt and with his game only heading one way, it’s hard to see him ever impacting significantly on a major tournament again. However, Allardyce spurned this option and chose to retain him as captain, stating that he would play him “where he plays for Manchester United” – we can only assume that this was referring to his role under Jose Mourinho, where he plays loosely as a number 10 off Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Instead, Rooney reprised the exact same role he filled in Euro 2016, on the left of a three man midfield. This creates a double issue; firstly, he cannot really play in this position. While his endeavour cannot be faulted, he is always keen to get on the ball from deep and the effort levels never drop – he simply does not have the required quality of distribution to have any kind of serious impact on games from that position. In a midfield alongside Henderson and Eric Dier, the onus is very much on him to be the creative hub of the team, but his passing between the lines is less than incisive and often his only offerings are heavily telegraphed switches to the right sided players (oddly, he rarely passes out to the left). There really are better central midfielders in the country than Wayne Rooney. Secondly, Allardyce explicitly stated that Rooney would not play in midfield. It is not a good look to essentially outright lie to the supporters before a ball’s even been kicked and to be directly contradicting your own public statements in your very first match in charge. Post-match, the manager seemed to suggest that Rooney had licence to play wherever he saw fit – a baffling statement if ever there were one, especially from a manager famed for tactical rigidity. Pandering to Rooney’s whims and not selecting teams on merit are dangerous roads for Allardyce to be going down at this very early stage.
As stated, Allardyce is very much a pragmatist and he will doubtless see a narrow away win against the second seeds in the group as a triumph, that his methods have been validated (leaving aside that Slovakia managed to significantly handicap themselves by keeping faith with Martin Skrtel, who inevitably lost control and was sent off, as he threatens to do so virtually every time he plays) and that any criticism is moot as the end ultimately justified the means. However, should he remain wilfully blind to the weaknesses in the current way in which the team is set up, it’s an inevitability that England will be condemned to the same results as the Hodgson era. Plenty of managers could get England to be semi-efficient flat track bullies; it’s up to Allardyce to live up to what has been mostly his own hype over the last two decades, and produce some form of tangible success. Based on tonight, he has much work to do across the board before that can be considered realistic.