England impress but not enough: How Stats Zone saw England 1-1 Russia
You can tell it’s an England tournament campaign when it starts in blazing optimism and ends in bittersweet disappointment.
Actually, England’s recent championship campaigns have aspired to mediocrity and largely failed. Since Sven-Goran Eriksson led the Three Lions to Three Quarter-Final Defeats, they haven’t so much as won a knockout game.
However, Roy Hodgson’s rejuvenation of the squad – it’s five years younger than Fabio Capello’s selection for South Africa – and willingness to experiment tactically has brought a welcome freshness to his charges.
Against Russia in Marseille he selected an attacking 4-3-3, flanking Harry Kane with Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana and dropping Wayne Rooney into midfield alongside Dele Alli with Eric Dier as insurance and Spurs full-backs Kyle Walker and Danny Rose flying forward.
And it worked very well indeed as England flew out of the traps at Russia: in the first 15 minutes, they had 78% possession and completed 86 of 101 passes to Russia's 17 of 31. They couldn’t quite keep that tempo up for the full first half, but by the oranges they’d had 9 shots to Russia’s 1.
As Louis van Gaal discovered, possession and pressure is nothing without goals and wins. And over the first 15 minutes of the second period Russia stepped up, figuratively and literally: rather than sitting back and soaking up, they got onto the ball, completed more passes than England and created some half-chances.
But the Lions came back and on 73 minutes took the lead. Alli had been upended in the D, which was a bit close for regular free-kick taker Kane (who had in any case been bumped off shooting duty by skipper Rooney for an earlier effort). Instead, Dier stepped forward and lashed it across the wall into the opposite side of Akinfeev’s net, prompting pandemonium among the players and fans.
England were good value for their lead and looked more likely to extend it than surrender it as Jack Wilshere, who had replaced Rooney five minutes after the goal, drove forward and linked with team-mates in typical style. The late arrival of James Milner for the somewhat sporadic Sterling seemed to make sense, too.
However, the Russian bear wasn’t dead and dealt a mighty swipe to England in, well, injury time. Two of the planned three minutes had gone when England cleared a Russia corner but didn’t clear their lines; Georgy Schennikov hung it up to the back post, where centre-back Vasili Berezutski outjumped Alli and looped a header over the despairing Hart. It was Russia’s only accurate effort of the second half.
So England continue their tradition of never winning their opening game at the Euros, but the overall performance at least threatens a better tournament than in recent years.
They forced Russia into averaging a tackle every two minutes, and although Hodgson will face a very different game against group leaders Wales on Thursday, he can at least reflect on arguably England’s best tournament performance in a decade. His shape-shifting young team simply needs to learn a couple of archetypal football lessons - turn dominance into goals when you're on top, don't do anything daft when you're not - if their latest campaign is to at least aim for bittersweet disappointment rather than bitter recriminations.