England v Slovakia preview: Sam Allardyce will hope to show change starts with him
England v Slovakia, Sunday 8pm UAE time, Abu Dhabi Sports 3HD
It is Slovakia again. It is a game to stir unpleasant memories for England, the day that, with the benefit of hindsight, their Euro 2016 began to go wrong.
It is less than three months since Roy Hodgson made six changes, saw his side register 30 attempts but no goal in a stalemate and, rather than winning the group, saw them plunged into the tougher half of the draw and the ultimately catastrophic meeting with Iceland.
Fast forward 10 weeks and some things have changed, but others remain the same. Hodgson is gone, along with Jack Wilshere. The midfielder’s last competitive start came against Slovakia. His next will come for Bournemouth, a development few anticipated even when he looked woefully out of touch in Saint-Etienne. Sam Allardyce has been appointed, but every member of the new manager’s starting 11 was in France.
Joe Hart remains in goal, despite an awful Euro 2016 and aided by the withdrawal of his major rival, Fraser Forster. Wayne Rooney retains the captaincy, meaning he will overhaul David Beckham and become England’s most capped outfield player Sunday.
Allardyce has taken the unusual step of naming his team two days early. It shows his confidence and a faith in two of England’s most gifted young players, Raheem Sterling and John Stones, who, for very different reasons, experienced demoralising European Championships, but not in two more, Dele Alli and Ross Barkley. The Tottenham midfielder seems Rooney’s designated understudy. The Evertonian is not even in the squad.
A preference for the captain has consequences. Rooney has been restored to the No 10 role, his favourite position, in what is probably his favourite environment. His displays in major tournaments have been decidedly patchy but he has been unrivalled in ensuring England reach them. Thirty of his record 53 goals have come in qualifiers, 14 of them in the last two campaigns alone. England have a recent habit of landing in relatively weak qualifying groups and Rooney is a reason why they have tended to ensure smooth progress.
Now they are pitted with Slovakia, Slovenia, Scotland, Lithuania and Malta. It is tempting to regard Marek Hamsik, the one world-class player possessed by any of their immediate rivals, as the principal obstacle to a place in Russia in 2018. The Napoli captain illustrated his considerable talent against Russia in France. He was subdued against England, partly because Hodgson’s team dominated possession. He ought to be more of a threat on home soil in Trnava.
England will look to Harry Kane for incision, although he extended his record of never scoring a Premier League goal in August. It will be intriguing to see if there is a focus on set-pieces, which Allardyce’s previous sides showed, although it is a safe assumption that, unlike Hodgson, he will not ask Kane to take the corners. It will be instructive, too, how quickly they play the ball forward. As he admits himself, Allardyce is unable to shake off an unwanted reputation as a long-ball merchant, but he has selected Stones, a footballing defender. They are not natural allies but the 61-year-old has long insisted he is more flexible and progressive than depicted.
His ego explains why some are reluctant to afford him credit. He has spent this week wondering if there will be a Sam Allardyce Suite at St George’s Park, England’s training centre, and wondering if he was overlooked for the job in 2006, when Steve McClaren was chosen, on “political” grounds.
“I was good enough then,” he said this week.
We are about to discover if he is good enough now, although the real examination may come in Russia.
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Published: September 3, 2016 04:00 AM