Walker and Rose show France how it’s done
Like France’s Didier Deschamps, England manager Roy Hodgson selected a 4-1-4-1 system with inverted wingers for his side’s opening group game against Russia. But while the host nation’s narrowness played into Romanian hands, with ageing full backs Bacary Sagna and Patrice Evra unable to regularly provide the requisite width, their younger cross-channel equivalents looked far more dangerous.
England’s right-hand side was particularly impressive. Dele Alli and Adam Lallana combined to overload the space behind Russia’s left-sided central midfielder Aleksander Golovin, forcing winger Fedor Smolov to tuck in and help out. This created space for the game’s top dribbler Kyle Walker who fashioned two great chances for Lallana with pullbacks from the byline.
Meanwhile, on the left, Raheem Sterling’s infield dribbling facilitated Danny Rose’s forward runs. The left back’s cross created Rooney’s second half drive that forced a strong save from Igor Akinfeev.
Alas for England, Russian captain Vasily Berezutsky headed a cruel equaliser at the death, availing of an aerial mismatch with Rose to convert his side’s second shot on target.
Ten was the magic number in dramatic Welsh victory
Following on from France’s late victory over Romania being directly attributable to switching Payet into the number ten position, all three goals in Wales’ 2-1 victory over Slovakia emanated from that zone.
Wales’ dual number tens must have been on Jan Kozak’s mind when he set his side out in a 4-1-4-1 shape, but that didn’t stop Chris Coleman’s side from creating havoc between the lines. The Bale free-kick that opened the scoring was won by one of those tens, Jonny Williams, finding a pocket of space behind Marek Hamsik, forcing holding player Patrik Hrosovsky to commit the foul.
Then, Slovakia’s 61st minute equaliser arrived mere seconds after removing Hrosovsky, introducing Ondrej Duda in a ten role, and switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation. Duda found space in behind Joe Allen and David Edwards to pull the trigger on Robert Mak’s cutback.
Finally, in the 81st minute, that same tactical change came back to bite the Slovakians, when Aaron Ramsey availed of Hrosovsky’s absence to collect Joe Ledley’s pass and feed Hal Robson-Kanu for the winner.
Slovakia also failed to take greater advantage of the theoretical weakness of Wales’ 5-2-2-1 formation on the flanks. Left back Dusan Svento’s 86th minute charge to the byline proved that, when Adam Nemec headed his cross onto the woodwork.
Albania fail to live up to their low billing
Despite being reduced to ten men in the first half of their opener against Switzerland thanks to Lorik Cana’s idiocy, Albania displayed an impressive technical proficiency that belied their billing as the most underwhelming qualifier.
Scorers of only seven goals in qualification, Albania thrice cut open the vulnerable Swiss defence with through balls. Napoli’s Elseid Hysaj played two of them, both of which Armando Sadiku spurned in one-on-ones with the excellent Yann Sommer. Substitute Shkelzen Gashi, twice top scorer in the Swiss League, also lost a duel to Sommer in the second half.
Of the eight teams that have played so far, Albania are second in the pass completion rankings with 84%; extremely impressive, given that they played the majority of their curtain-raiser with a man less than the opposition.
Four games, four goalkeeping clangers
After Friday’s howler from Fiorentina’s Ciprian Tatarusanu, each of Saturday’s three group games also featured a crucial goalkeeping error.
In the first game, Lazio’s Etrit Berisha further sullied the reputation of Serie A stoppers by foolishly rushing out to claim the Xherdan Shaqiri corner that Fabian Schar headed into his empty net.
Later, Matus Kozacik’s footwork was culpable in allowing Bale’s free-kick to fly-in, while Russia’s Akinfeev will also likely not be pleased with how central Eric Dier’s successful free-kick was for England.