Two years on from failure in Brazil and England, yet again, have a glaring defensive weakness at a major tournament in the shape of their central midfield captain.
From an attacking perspective, Wayne Rooney impressed in possession, helping to dictate his side’s tempo from central areas, as well as timing his runs to arrive at the edge of the box to be on the end of a few England attacks.
One in particular was only denied by the combination of a heroic save from the Russian goalkeeper, Igor Akinfeev, onto the crossbar. However, from a defensive perspective, his ability to play central midfield poses serious warning signs for England’s long-term prospects in the tournament.
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As someone who watches Tottenham on a weekly basis, as well as being in attendance at the Stade Vélodrome on Saturday, it seems clear Hodgson tried to replicate Mauricio Pochettino with the advanced positional use of the two fullbacks, two inverted wingers, a number ten and a lone striker, with four of those six positions being occupied by actual Tottenham players. He even had Eric Dier in defensive midfield, dropping into to make a central back three, with the two central defenders when England utilised possession.
The crucial difference between Pochettino’s Tottenham and Roy Hodgson’s England is the defensive discipline of Dier’s central midfield partner.
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Mousa Dembele is one of the best central midfielders in the Premier League at striking the positional balance between attacking and defending. Rarely does he advance beyond the sometimes six attacking players in front of him, and rarely does he present the generously giant size hole centrally for the opposition to counter attack that England, and particularly Rooney, did on Saturday.
Curiously, of the many highlights from mainstream media channels, such as the BBC and ITV, the weakness of Rooney defensively in central midfield was rarely observed, despite the numerous times the Russians exploited this, particularly in the first 45 minutes.
If England are going to play a system as positionally advanced as Tottenham’s, then Rooney has to be much more defensively disciplined when England are in possession.
Eric Dier, Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill cannot cover the vast areas of space Danny Rose, Kyle Walker, Wayne Rooney, and even Deli Alli, to a lesser extent, leave behind for the opposition’s counter attack.
With the ghost-like ability of Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana covering back to help out in wide areas defensively, England are just far too unbalanced going forward with Rooney playing as if he still has the defensive freedom he used to have as a number 10.
In the latter stages of the tournament, if England now even qualify, this tactical flaw will be fatally exposed against superior teams in the quality of counter attacks we have already seen by Germany and Italy already.
Two years ago in Sao Paulo, a Luis Suarez-inspired Uruguay condemned another England team, led by Hodgson, to an early elimination before the knockout stages. Worryingly, a similar fate may await England with the imminent counter-attacking threat of Gareth Bale and Marek Hamsik coming up next.
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