Opinion is divided about how England should line up against Slovakia today in the last of their group games. They are currently top of Group B with 4 points from their first two games, a 1-1 draw with Russia and a 2-1 win over Wales.
Much of the debate stems from the team’s unusual depth in strikers: Daniel Sturridge, Harry Kane, Wayne Rooney, Jamie Vardy, and Marcus Rashford were all included in Roy Hodgson’s final 23. In comparison, the only natural striker picked by Joachim Low was Besiktas’ Mario Gomez.
Hodgson tinkered with a two-striker system in friendlies, but the team he picked to play Russia lined up in a 4-1-2-3 shape, with Eric Dier holding behind Dele Alli and Wayne Rooney in midfield, and Kane starting up top, flanked by Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana on the wings.
This system stayed until half-time of the game against Wales where, 1-0 down, Hodgson replaced Kane and Sterling with Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge, switching the shape to a diamond. England won 2-1, with Vardy and Sturridge both scoring.
Hodgson is reportedly set to make a number of changes to the side that will face against Slovakia: Rooney, Kane, Walker, Rose, Alli, and Sterling are all rumoured sacrifices. Whether this is tactical rotation or actual dropping is unknowable yet, but it is likely to be a bit of both. Rotating the side will give Hodgson a chance to assess some prevalent questions about his team, and with the depth in the squad it is hardly a huge gamble.
Should Harry Kane be dropped?
To many, Vardy and Sturridge should be handed starting berths for at least the immediate future after their performances – and, mainly, goals - against Wales. After two starts and zero goals, Kane is being described as fatigued after a game-filled season for Spurs.
My problem with this narrative, particularly about Kane’s exhaustion, is that it is conveniently retrospective: had Kane scored a fortuitously onside goal like Vardy had, would anyone have covered a story about how many games he had played this season? Probably not. It is also one that uses an off-the-field-factor to perfectly explain a footballing outcome, which should be taken with more than a pinch of salt.
Kane has only had 5 shots so far, and 4 of them came outside of the box:
This, obviously, isn’t a great return. Kane had 2.81 shots inside the box per 90 for Spurs this season, and this is a marked drop in output.
But strikers are a product of their context – before deciding that Kane’s under-performance is because he’s tired, we first have to dismiss the hypothesis that he is shooting less because he is being supplied less. As it turns out, it’s a theory that is a lot more plausible than exhaustion.
Sterling and Lallana, the wingers supporting him thus far, have been noticeably terrible at getting the ball into the box. In the 4-1-2-3 with a lethargic Rooney rarely pushing into the space behind Kane and Alli tasked with both marauding forwards and covering his captain, Kane has had little going for him. This isn’t a story of a striker getting chances but not converting, it is one of a striker not getting them at all.
On top of this, how much Vardy suits the England system, even a two-striker version, is up for debate. Despite scoring, he only had 7 touches of the ball against Wales, and was often looking to make a run that none of the team were even tuned into.
So far, England have been one of the least direct sides at the Euros, both in terms of the proportion of their passes that move forwards and the average length of their entries into the box. Given that Leicester were the most direct team in the Premier League, it is easy to suggest there may be some tactical incompatibility between Vardy and a side populated entirely by players who are used to drastically different systems.
If Hodgson moves to a two-striker system for the knock-out stages, it wouldn’t make sense to drop Kane based on his performances so far. I would start Kane with Sturridge and use Vardy as a tactical substitute in the second half of matches.
How has Wayne Rooney played?
I ran a Twitter poll asking my followers whether Rooney was ‘good’, ‘average’, or ‘bad’ against Wales. 226 people voted. 39% thought he was good, 42% average, and 19% bad.
I’m with the 19%.
Rooney is unusually good at passing for a player who is normally a striker, and in his centre-mid role his biggest strength is spreading the play. My problem is that Rooney does so in a way that often slows down attacks, with particularly horizontal distribution.
Only 50% of his passes take England closer to the opposition goal. In comparison, Granit Xhaka passes forwards 12% more, while Toni Kroos does so 22% more. The best centre-mids are involved and forward thinking; so far, Rooney has only been the former.
Slowing down attacks is bad because it allows the opponent to transition into their defensive shape, ruining the possible advantages of a counter-attack. In a system with wing-play, it means that Sterling and Lallana are less likely to be in 1v1 situations where they have the space to attack their full backs.
Rooney’s passing is a genuine asset, it’s just that centre-mid in a 4-1-2-3 is probably not the best way to utilise it.
Given Sterling’s form – not just in the tournament, but this season – and the depth in strikers, Hodgson should move to a two-striker system. The main loss, width, would be offset by how attacking Rose and Walker are.
To make the most of Rooney’s passing and maximise his forward impetus, he should be played as the 10 in the system, supporting the two strikers and attempting to play the incisive ball in behind.
England are in a fairly comfortable position, with a place in the knock-out stages all but guaranteed and room to rest a few key players ahead of it. The biggest stumbling block to future success in the tournament will be whether or not Hodgson can figure out the team’s dominant strategy in time. Oh, and penalty shoot-outs