If you have a bet on the Three Lions to win the whole tournament then this is going to be difficult to reconcile, but the 1-1 draw against Russia means almost nothing. Of course it’s disappointing to concede a last gasp goal to an inferior opponent, but in any other minute of the match it would have been seen as the nearly comically fluky finish that it truly was. Russia created basically nothing in the whole match, with England’s back line of Danny Rose, Chris Smalling, Gary Cahill, and Kyle Walker rarely being stretched by Russia’s blocky attack.
England’s attack was certainly less than perfect, but there are positive signs to be sure. Roy Hodgson finally(!) deployed Wayne Rooney not as the focal point of the attack, but as a ball playing midfielder with license to attempt difficult passes. This allowed Harry Kane to play as a true central striker, with Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana in support, and the attack felt more cohesive without Rooney’s constant shuttling between being a number 9 and a number 10. It’s disappointing that England weren’t quite able to break down a stodgy foe, but there was no great issue here that changes the view on their team quality as a whole. They are still favorites to win the group and will almost definitely be going through, and given their status as a top-six side in Euro 2016 the semifinals still feel like a strong possibility.
France are in great shape. A relatively weak group with Switzerland as their main contender is a blessing, and home field advantage set them up just fine as the betting favorite to take home the trophy at the end of July. With wins against Romania and Albania already guaranteeing their passage into the next round and placing them top of the group, Les Blues are flying high.
Despite the results, there are legitimate doubts creeping in regarding France’s status as favorites. The plan heading into the tournament most certainly did not include being bailed of a draw against Romania by a late Dmitri Payet weak-footed howitzer, nor did it include drastic lineup changes after just one match that saw team pillars Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann on the bench for the first half against Albania.
The Romania was expected to be a relative walk for France, but it turned into anything but. Manager Didier Deschamps elected to start an, ahem, experienced defensive four featuring Laurent Koscielny (30), Adil Rami (30), Bacary Sagna (33), and Patrice Evra (35), and they were pretty comprehensively bad. The 4-3-3 that France played required Sagna and Evra to shuttle seamlessly between providing attacking width and defensive solidity, but neither were physically able to support the attack well enough, and a Romanian attack that scored barely a goal a game in qualifying was able to earn a penalty and several major chances in the box that better teams likely would have converted.
On the other end, the attack was left almost completely up to Payet. The goal was enough to reduce Payet himself to tears, but he also produced eight of France’s twelve total chances including putting the ball on a platter for Olivier Giroud’s opener. He was so good in the match that he got Deschamps to change the formation to a 4-2-3-1 and start Dmitri in the role of a true central attacking midfielder against Albania. The elevation of Payet comes at a cost, however, as Deschamps dropped Pogba to accommodate the new formation. This actually sort of made sense, as the starting lineup appeared to put more players in comfortable positions, but it nearly ended up costing Deschamps the three points. Albania doubled Payet consistently, forcing him to bring back his original starting lineup, and the original lineup ended up dominating Albania and winning the match. The results have been good, but the yanking around of players and the inability to dominate bad teams so far are not usual characteristics for tournament favorites.
Again, France are still, at worst, third favorite to win the whole thing, so there are no huge issues here. It’s just a big surprise how many questions were raised in two matches against clearly inferior opponents, and that is exactly the kind of surprise that should strike up some nerves.
It feels like the Red Devils are too good of a side to have real worries in the first round of a major tournament, especially since they have played neither of the weaker teams in their group, but their 2-0 loss to Italy raised some serious questions about manager Marc Wilmots. There were worries even on selection day about the lack of fullbacks in the Belgian squad, as only Jordan Lukaku and Thomas Meunier count themselves as wide defenders, and as such their defensive line fielded four true center backs. Among those four were Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, two excellent and mobile defenders who partnered to form the best back line in England this season, but Jan was shuffled to the outside to accommodate a slightly worse central defender in Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Ciman, mediocre center back, was forced onto the right, making the Belgian back line sub-ideal in all four slots.
The team sheet didn’t make much more sense farther up the pitch either, but not due to a lack of quality attackers. In the 4-2-3-1 employed by Wilmots there is an obvious allocation of attackers to start: master passer Kevin de Bruyne in the center flanked by speedster Yannick Carrasco and dribbling wizard Eden Hazard. Instead, Marouane Fellaini was tossed into the central position, shunting De Bruyne to the wing and Carrasco to the bench. The end result was a lack of connection, interchange, and dynamism in the area of the pitch most requiring of those qualities. John Ray has a great look on how Wilmots should have been sacked already, but what’s important for the next two matches is this particular observation:
“He has stubbornly stuck with this system despite middling returns and abided by a safety first philosophy throughout his tenure. After the match with Italy, he said that they were not beaten tactically and that the Italians did not show up to play. Not only is none of this true, it reveals the stubbornness that is his greatest failing. Wilmots can’t admit that he’s wrong or needs to make changes, instead he suggests that it is his tactic which is effective and the other teams ‘refusal to play’ which rendered it ineffective.”
Belgium are about two play two more opponents who’s ‘refusal to play’ is going to be a whole lot bigger than it was for Italy, and Wilmots isn’t going to change a thing. The Red Devils may still batter their way through the group, but it is absolutely time for them to panic.