Just as they had done against Belgium in their opening game, Italy implemented their tactical system perfectly and completely stifled Spain in the first half of the highly anticipated Round of 16 clash in Paris. The incessant pressing and near perfect defensive organisation meant that Spain couldn’t find any space to play through them and their key playmakers were almost anonymous.
It was one thing to stop the reigning champions playing but they also carried a threat in the way they transitioned at speed and they created some good opportunities that, but for the performance of De Gea in the Spanish goal, would have seen them take the lead earlier. Just past the half hour mark they got the goal their performance completely merited, Chiellini poking home after De Gea spilled Eder’s powerful low free kick.
Italy had played the first half of the match very much on the front foot but after half-time they retreated into a lower defensive block with the wing backs dropping deeper to form a back five. This move challenged Spain to try and get back into the game and they did threaten more as the game went on, Pique very nearly equalized only to be denied by a good save from Buffon late on. Then in stoppage time after another break up the field and crossfield ball, Pelle volleyed home Darmian’s deflected cross and the victory was complete. The only real surprise is that Italy hadn’t scored more. The general opinion of Italy is they lack the talent and quality of past generations, but on the evidence of this and the Belgium game, they more than make up for it in tactical organisation, hard work and their team ethic.
I really am not sure where to start with England’s ignominious defeat to the tournament’s fairy-tale side Iceland? The perceived wisdom before the match was that Iceland were going to pose a similar challenge to that of Slovakia, against whom England had struggled, with a deep-lying and organised defence. It was generally felt that an early goal would open them up and make the game easier. Three minutes in, England got exactly that when Sturridge sent Sterling running into the area only for Iceland keeper Halldorsson to bring him down with a clumsy challenge and the referee pointed to the spot. Rooney dispatched the penalty low to the keeper’s right and just for a brief moment I assumed things were going according to plan.
Sitting in the ITV studio in Paris before the game, Lee Dixon, a graduate of the George Graham academy of defending, had highlighted Iceland’s approach from Gunnarsson’s long throw and demonstrated exactly what they did every time. In the build-up to the game Hodgson had reassured us that England were fully aware of the danger and had been working all week to deal with it. Quite what they had been working on is anyone’s guess as from the very first one, Rooney was for some inexplicable reason marking centre back Arnason, who inevitably beat him to the flick on; quite what Kyle Walker was doing is another good question, as he was completely unaware of the second centre back and danger man Sigurdsson’s run into the area and he was free to turn the loose ball home. England’s lead had lasted all of two minutes and it was back to square one. Having said that though there was no real sense of the disaster yet to come.
Things went from bad to worse before we even reached the midway point of the first half; Iceland worked the ball on the edge of the area, Sigthorsson drove between England’s centre backs and shot at goal; to say that Hart should have stopped it is being too kind to the Manchester City keeper, it was quite frankly his second clanger of the tournament, this time however there was to be no way back.
From there on the rot started to settle in with simple mistakes creeping in as the highly paid Premier League stars seemed to have no idea what to do; with the manager looking even less inspired on the touchline.
At half-time Wilshere replaced Dier to try and add some creative guile to the team; as an Arsenal fan and a huge admirer of Jack Wilshere, even I would tell you his lack of fitness did not justify him being in the squad let alone anywhere near the pitch.
Instead of any kind of fight back in the second half, England fell apart completely to the point where five yard passes or even controlling the ball seemed to be beyond them. If anyone was going to score it would be Iceland again.
In a desperate attempt to change something, anything, Hodgson sent Vardy on for the woeful Sterling, despite having omitted the Leicester man in the first place as he knew there would be no space for him to run into. The one bright spark came in a five minute cameo from Manchester United youngster Rashford who did more in his limited time on the pitch than most of his vastly more experienced colleagues had in the whole match. In the end we were left with centre back Cahill lumbering around up front as we failed to create anything.
At the end of the game, boos rained down from the massed England support who had all presumably spent a small fortune following yet another false dream. Hodgson’s resignation came minutes after the referee’s whistle finally put us out of our misery, in an apparently hastily prepared speech that suggested he knew his departure was inevitable.
After the capitulation in Brazil, despite Hodgson’s claims that our record in qualifying suggested a corner had been turned, England have had another woeful tournament performance. It didn’t seem as if there was any clarity on the right formation and system to get the best out of the available players. Even going into the first match it wasn’t sure whether we were going to be playing 4-3-3 or with two up front and a midfield diamond. Quite how the players were expected to develop any cohesion, structure or combination play is beyond me?
It seemed that one of the major issues was how to accommodate Wayne Rooney; who is at best a number 10 who is not as good as he used to be. If he is not the best number 10 in the team then why select him? To push him back in the midfield was to weaken that area simply to get him in the team.
There were also some majorly poor tactical decisions: using Vardy when there was no room for him to run into, persevering with Sterling when it was clear he was short of confidence from the first match against Russia, not using Lallana against Iceland when he had been our most lively forward player, having Kane take corners and free kicks when his delivery was poor and he should have been the target, etc.
The errors in formation, system and tactics were then compounded by the players themselves not delivering, especially with regard to the lack of creativity and some terrible finishing.
Before the tournament it was suggested that England’s defence was a weakness and although it was hardly tested in the group games, save for the debacle of the added time equalizer conceded to Russia. However when it came under even a modicum of pressure last night, it crumbled.
As mentioned previously, individual errors, most specifically from Joe Hart, cost England dearly; two of the four goals conceded were a direct result of his mistakes. Surely it must now be time to give Fraser Forster a chance?
Quite where this leaves England is uncertain; it is obvious that beyond the management issues and poor player performances there is a greater issue in terms of mentality and an inability to perform when the pressure is on. Whoever steps up as the next manager will probably secure qualification for Russia in 2018 before either not getting out of the group or exiting the tournament at the first knockout stage, it is very difficult to see how anything much will change in two years.