Chris Smalling’s late goal secures win for dour England
Defender’s late header secured Wembley win for hosts over 10-man Portugal
England 1 Portugal 0
As send-offs go, England’s final match before heading for French territory was threatening to be a damp and sullen occasion until the late flourish when Chris Smalling headed in the game’s decisive moment. They had played until that point without spark or spontaneity, which was quite some feat bearing in mind the number of attacking players Roy Hodgson had shoehorned into his team, and the impression it left was that England’s manager is still uncertain about his best team or formation for Euro 2016.
That has to be alarming this close to the tournament and it does leave questions for Hodgson about why he has left it so late to experiment with Wayne Rooney, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy in the same side. It has been a long time since Vardy has looked so flat but that was just in keeping with England’s overall display on a night when they struggled to put together a noteworthy chance until one of their substitutes, Raheem Sterling, crossed for Smalling to score with a glancing 86th-minute header.
It probably summed up England’s display that their right back, Kyle Walker, was named as the official man of the match and the dreariness of the performance must have been startling for Hodgson, especially given that Bruno Alves, the Portugal centre half, was sent off in the first half.
England can take encouragement that they managed to win while playing so poorly but there will surely have to be an improvement when they play Russia in Marseille on Saturday week.
If Hodgson does persevere with this starting line-up in the Stade Vélodrome, England’s manager will be entrusting five of his places to players from Tottenham Hotspur. Dele Alli and Eric Dier form two points of the midfield diamond, Kane has established himself as a mandatory pick while Walker and Danny Rose are not only there to defend when they have the running ability to drive forward from the full back positions and supply the width that might otherwise be lacking.
Walker, in particular, was involved in some of England’s brighter attacks, particularly in the first half, and those forward surges made it easy to understand why Hodgson opted for Dier, rather than the more attack-minded Jack Wilshere, in the covering midfield position.
Yet there were obvious imperfections when Rooney operating in the No 10 role meant Alli being removed from the position where he is at his most effective. Alli was on the left of England’s midfield, with James Milner covering on the right, and there were times when it felt as though he was being slightly restricted.
Kane was also under instructions, when Portugal were in possession, to move to the right wing and cover the left back, Eliseu, just as Vardy had orders to do the same with Vieirinha on the other side. They both carried out their orders but, unfortunately for England, it never quite looked right. It also meant there was little evidence of the Alli-Kane link-up that had been so effective for Spurs as well as their previous internationals together.
With such an attacking line-up, it certainly felt bemusing that England started the game without any real tempo. Vardy, for instance, thrives on quick, penetrative football and he struggled to make any impact whatsoever during those awkward spells, even before the red card for Alves, when Hodgson’s team struggled to find any real momentum.
Perhaps the most perplexing part is that England are still looking for the right formation so close to the tournament and, in a strange way, it probably did not help Hodgson’s fact-finding exercise when Portugal went down to ten men.
At 34, Alves surely ought to have enough experience and knowhow to appreciate that his flying, studs-up challenge on Kane was senseless in a game of this nature. To put it in context, Kane is a six-footer and was jumping for the ball when Alves’s boot caught him on the side of the head.
It is a measure of Kane’s competitive instincts that he was immediately back on his feet, chasing after the ball, but he could easily have been maimed. The Italian referee, Marco Guida, made the correct decision and Kane should just be relieved he escaped unhurt.
Alarmingly for Hodgson, England took an awfully long time to realise they should, in theory, be pinning back their opponents. It is never a good sign when the crowd have to make their own entertainment and the first Mexican waves were snaking around the stadium shortly before the hour. England had laboured to half-time and the improvement that might have been anticipated after the interval failed to materialise. The crowd were too genial to turn on the players, but in other ways it was not the atmosphere Hodgson would have liked – for the simple reason that his team did not do enough to make it a more fulfilling occasion.
Midway through the second half Hodgson started trying to switch things around but, tellingly, he kept to the diamond rather than reverting to the 4-3-3 system that has also featured prominently in his thinking. Sterling replaced the ineffectual Vardy but took up Rooney’s position.
Rooney moved into Vardy’s slot and Wilshere came on at the same time, with Milner making way. Alli duly moved to the right side of midfield but the general formation stayed the same and it was the lack of movement that must have concerned Hodgson more than anything.
Hodgson finally swapped formations when he brought on Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana, for Kane and Rooney, in the 78th minute and, if nothing else, Smalling’s glancing header did continue England’s winning sequence.