Roy Hodgson’s half-time switch to a midfield diamond quickly restored parity in his side’s Euro 2016 encounter with Wales. But the England manager was very fortunate not to forfeit a deserved victory by dumping it again just 25 minutes later.
England’s right flank ran rampant in the first half against Russia, when Dele Alli, Adam Lallana and Kyle Walker combined fruitfully to create several chances. It was therefore quite bizarre to see Hodgson’s charges funnel most of their attacking play down the left in the first half against Wales, towards the off-colour Raheem Sterling.
Sterling completed a team-low 67% of his passes and completed precisely zero dribbles in his 45 minutes on the pitch. Coleman’s charges were comfortable in their defensive 5-2-2-1 shell, with dual number tens Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale pressing Alli and Wayne Rooney to fantastic effect inside their own half.
Indeed, it was Rooney who lost possession in the lead-up to Bale’s 42nd minute free-kick, by failing with an attempted flick and immediately fouling his pickpocket Hal Robson-Kanu. Joe Hart became the latest goalkeeper at this tournament to cost his side a goal with a fatal error.
Half-time signaled a key double change from Hodgson, with Daniel Sturridge and Jamie Vardy introduced up top in a 4-3-1-2 system. Lallana moved into the number ten slot, with Sterling, and the unlucky Harry Kane, unceremoniously hooked.
England’s new strikeforce soon combined for the equaliser, when Ashley Williams’ failed attempt to clear a Sturridge inswinger allowed Vardy to tap home. Had Williams committed that error in the first half, it’s doubtful that England would have had enough bodies in the box to capitalise.
Left back Danny Rose, no longer reliant on Sterling as his facilitator, looked transformed. The Tottenham full back beat Ramsey and Chris Gunter, before standing up a cross that Sturridge miscued at the back post.
Then, Hodgson reverted to 4-3-3 and the chances dried up again. Although he performed admirably, 18-year-old Marcus Rashford’s arrival on the left of a three-pronged strikeforce signaled a return to the comfort-zone for a previously harried Welsh defensive unit.
Only a delicate piece of eye-of-the-needle combination play, between Sturridge, Alli and Vardy clinched three points for England at the death. Substitute David Edwards passing Sturridge on to an easily overpowered Gunter obviously helped.
Hodgson was lucky here, both for persevering with Sterling in the face of all available evidence, and for unfixing his half-time structural upgrade for no apparent reason. Regardless of their result against Slovakia in the final game, Hodgson’s team will surely now advance to the second phase. Whether or not he will pick the right eleven when they get there is another matter entirely.