The notion of “character” as an imperative characteristic in a successful soccer team has taken outsized importance in the contemporary dialogue that surrounds the sport these days. In post-match interviews after a hard-fought result, former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers would often note that his side had displayed character. By the end of Rodgers’ reign at Anfield, fans on Twitter and observers in the media had adopted the term as a stick to beat Rodgers and his team with — right up to the point when a sequence of relinquished 1-0 leads, apparently indicative of a flaw in that character, led to him losing his job last October.
The England national team I saw in France this summer, capitulating on a gorgeous summer evening in Nice at the hands of a fiercely determined and organized Iceland side, had numerous tactical and personnel faults that led to its own demise. But looking back on that inglorious exit from the 2016 European Championship, it’s remarkably hard not to come back to that now-pervasive buzzword. England went ahead against Iceland in the 4th minute, through a penalty kick; they conceded via a set piece only two minutes later, and then allowed a painfully soft goal to find themselves behind before even 20 minutes had passed.
What’s more, the remaining 70-plus minutes of that contest followed an excruciating pattern: blunt attacking foray after blunt attacking foray dissolving into nothingness; the England players gradually losing their confidence and, with it, their technical superiority; and the manager on the sideline, overseeing it all, communicating nothing to his players other than an overhanging sense of dread and powerlessness in the face of the adversity. England had the wrong footballers in the wrong positions doing the wrong things, and to say they were being led by the wrong man would be an understatement. By the time Harry Kane booted that last free kick into the England end in which my friend and I were sat, the fans around us were openly berating their own players. “You’re not fit to wear the shirt,” they sang angrily at the final whistle.
Roy Hodgson had resigned as England manager before we made it back to our car, which was parked a mile or so away from the Allianz Riviera. It was an astonishing series of events and yet one which felt so amazingly predictable, having followed patterns so inherent to the histories of both England national team and the man they call the Hodge. The English FA’s shortlist of candidates of replace Hodgson underwhelmed, to say the least; the most intriguing option was probably Jurgen Klinsmann. (I find myself in the minority that still backs the current U.S. men’s team manager, and could be forgiving for wondering what he could accomplish with a more talented squad of players.)
In the end, the FA selected then-Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce in a decision that somehow seemed both inherently safe and oddly progressive. Over a 20-plus managerial career, the man known as “Big Sam” has come to embody a direct, physical and long ball-centric style that, according to conventional wisdom, is embedded in the very fabric of the English game. But despite such rather conservative traits, Allardyce is far from a football luddite — he’s viewed as a pioneer for having embraced sports science and advanced statistical analysis during his time at Bolton Wanderers in the 2000s. And his teams, while usually rejecting the importance of possession and generally adopting a reactionary approach to their opposition, have almost always taken the form of hard-nosed outfits reflecting the fierce attitude, needly demeanor and never-say-die constitution of the man in charge. That is to say, chock full of what some would call “character.”
England made the trip to the western Slovakian city of Trnava this weekend for their first competitive match (and first match ever) under Allardyce’s management, a World Cup qualifier against the hosts. It would also be the first match since the humiliation in Nice on June 27. The English media were apparently briefed in the run-up to the game, because both Allardyce’s intended team selection and formation were widely reported beforehand: he would pick eight of the 11 players who started against Iceland and play them in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Wayne Rooney playing where he supposedly belongs, as the playmaker or “number 10” behind striker Harry Kane.
Intriguingly, while the team selection was as anticipated, England’s formation in Trnava on Sunday was notably different than what had been reported (perhaps a first curveball by Big Sam in his dealings with his nation’s thirsty football press). It was soon apparent that England was playing an 4-3-3, with Rooney operating in a deeper midfield role off to one side of holding midfielder Eric Dier. It was an all-too-familiar look — one remarkably similar, and featuring almost the exact same personnel, to the side that lost to Iceland in Nice. So much for getting the Hodge behind thee.
You can’t blame Allardyce too much for sticking with what he has at his disposal and trying it out first-hand — this was his first match in charge, competitive or otherwise. But it couldn’t have come as much of a surprise that England spent most of the contest looking alarmingly similar to the flat, lifeless outfit that trudged through the Euros this summer. There were the same tired, uninventive patterns of play — Rooney being afforded tons of time on the ball against an opponent more than willingly to sit deep and defend, and neither he nor his teammates able to put together anything incisive in the attacking third.
Neither England nor Slovakia fired a shot on target during a staid and boring first half, despite England having more than 60 percent of possession. It followed a similar pattern to the 0-0 draw between these two sides in Saint-Etienne on June 20, when Hodgson infamously rotated his squad for England’s last group stage match of the Euros, and paid for it with a second-place finish in Group B. Despite having most of the ball, England were static and uninspired when in possession, with the exception of the bright Raheem Sterling; Harry Kane continued to look like a mentally and physically exhausted footballer, and even the perpetually-in-motion Adam Lallana had trouble finding space against a compact yet completely ordinary Slovakia side.
Whatever joy England could find came via a familiar approach: pumping percentage balls down the channels and hoping that Sterling or Kane could do something with them. But they usually couldn’t, and whether or not Allardyce wants his team to adopt a direct style of play — say, a slicker and more high-powered version of the long-ball approach that he found success with at the club level — he’ll need to impress upon these players a more effective and consistent way of actually playing that style. With the next World Cup about two years away, at least he’ll have time to do so.
England caught a break in the second half through Martin Skrtel’s sending off in the 57th minute for stamping on Kane’s ankle — a second yellow card that could have easily been a straight red for the Slovakia captain. With the man advantage in play, Allardyce proceeded to give his side a more attacking look by bringing on Dele Alli, another veteran of the nightmare in Nice, in place of Jordan Henderson. Unlike his predecessor, Allardyce gave Alli license to play further up the field so that he operated in the number 10 slot, just behind his Tottenham teammate Kane; Alli immediately offered a reference in that role and England looked noticeable brighter upon his inclusion. It also prompted Rooney to drop even deeper in midfield, so that he was basically playing in a double-pivot alongside Dier; with Slovakia down a man and defending as compactly as ever, Rooney found himself even more space to work with.
And still, England found themselves frustrated by an ability to convert all that possession into genuine goalscoring opportunities. There were a few chances: Lallana hit the post with a rocket of an effort in the 76th minute, then saw another chance soon after saved by Slovakia goalkeeper Matus Kozacik. Sturridge saw a curler from outside the box fall safely into Kozacik’s hands in the 89th minute, and a minute later, Rooney fired a ball through the Slovakia defense that put Walcott through on goal and free to slot it away — only for Walcott to be rightly called offside and see his goal disallowed.
England could have been done at that point, resigned to starting off their new manager’s reign with a drab performance and an underwhelming away point. But a final wave of pressure led to a scrum in the Slovakia penalty area in the 95th minute, and the ball fell to Lallana’s feet; the Liverpool man, a wonderful player who has so often frustrated in front of the net for both club and country, fired it at Kozacik, and it deflected off the keeper and into the net for Lallana’s first England goal in 27 appearances. England had stuck it out; their perseverance had brought them a winning goal and a hard-earned 1-0 victory. Some would say that they showed character.
Afterwards, a visibly relieved Allardyce was asked about his decision to play Rooney in the deeper midfield role, contrary to what the press had been briefed and how Jose Mourinho has deployed him thus far this season at Manchester United. “Wayne played wherever he wanted,” Big Sam said. “He was brilliant and controlled midfield. I can’t stop Wayne playing there.” When pressed further, he tried to play the whole thing off: “We’re not going to make a big deal of it, are we?”
Rooney’s presence in the national side continues to raise more questions than answers these days; at times on Sunday, I found myself pining to see how England would look with a younger, more dynamic option in his stead, either pulling the strings in midfielder or supporting Kane up front (and England are not short on options). The game against Slovakia was Rooney’s 116th appearance in an England shirt, taking him past David Beckham as the second-most capped player in his country’s history and England’s most capped outfield player ever. And yet, though he recently announced his intention to retire after the 2018 World Cup, the 30-year-old Rooney’s claim to a place in the England lineup appears as incontestable as ever.
It’s early days, but Allardyce’s apparent unwillingness to challenge that notion displays a willingness to persist with the status quo — not exactly an encouraging sign for observers who hoped that a new manager would bring a fresh approach and reinvigorate an unquestionably talented collection of players. England only need to look back two months or so, to the ghosts of Nice, to see how far the status quo got them.