England start a new era under a new manager in Sam Allardyce on Sunday, and there’s no time to ease into the position for the experienced Premier League boss. It’s straight into competitive action with a World Cup 2018 qualifier against Slovakia – one of England’s group stage opponents at Euro 2016 which effectively ended former manager Roy Hodgson’s England reign.
Rarely has an England team returned from a tournament in such shameful circumstances, and the knives were out in full force for the under-achieving squad. Roy Hodgson wasted little time in announcing his resignation after the famous defeat to Iceland, perhaps pre-empting the criticism that was bound to come his way. The FA were equally quick to appoint a successor, and with a lack of viable or creditable candidates, Sam Allardyce stood out to take over the job. The former Bolton, Blackburn, Newcastle, West Ham and Sunderland boss is the most experienced English manager in the Premier League and has made no secret of his ambition to have a crack at the top job.
However, it’s now time for the talking to stop and the action to start, in what looks to be a tricky opening tie away to Slovakia. England’s qualifying group also contains Scotland, Slovenia, Malta, and Lithuania, so along with the away match in Scotland this game is arguably Sam’s toughest assignment.
New Squad Same Faces
Plenty of fans were calling for sweeping changes to the squad after England’s dismal performances in France, but Allardyce has made precious few changes to Hodgson’s tournament squad. Out go Jack Wilshere and Ross Barkley, while there have been recalls for Luke Shaw, Phil Jagielka and Theo Walcott. The only new face is West Ham’s Michail Antonio, who has been rewarded for his swashbuckling performances for the Hammers over the last six months or so.
It’s a sensible and pragmatic move by Sam to stick with the same nucleus of players, and he’s also named Wayne Rooney as captain to aid the continuation. No doubt he will want to shape his own squad over the course of this qualifying campaign, but too many changes ahead of such a vital game might have been seen as a risky strategy. Allardyce isn’t renowned for taking risks, and it’s arguable that he doesn’t have the deepest pool of quality players to choose from in any case.
All of that said, it wasn’t lack of talent that undermined England’s Euro campaign, but more a lack of organisation. Roy Hodgson made some strange selections over the friendlies leading up to the Euros as well as during the tournament, and the tinkering with formations and personnel spectacularly back-fired. In his desire to squeeze Rooney and Dele Alli into the same team much of the balance was lost, while England were left severely lacking in wide areas.
Sam has already mentioned that he will utilise Rooney as a ‘number 10’ behind the striker, and Alli will be in competition for that spot. With the return of Walcott, the selection of Antonio and the resurgence of Raheem Sterling under Pep Guardiola at Man City, the wide areas have also been addressed. Fans of any of the clubs that Big Sam has managed will know his aversion to using square pegs in round holes, and his dogged determination to stick to a system, and that is probably exactly the sort of approach that England needs after looking entirely bereft of a system at the Euros.
On the subject of Wayne Rooney, he is rated a +800 chance with SkyBet to open the scoring here. Considering that Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy, Daniel Sturridge and ‘no goalscorer’ are all shorter at the odds, Rooney is worth a speculative punt. He’s likely to be playing in a more familiar attacking role, he’s the nominal penalty taker, and remains England’s top scorer of all time.
The Importance of a Good Start
The importance of getting off to a winning start will not be lost on Allardyce or the squad of players. Anything other than a victory will have the press asking questions, and that is not the way they will want this campaign to begin. In France England struggled to break teams down and their three group games resulted in a 1-1 draw with Russia, a last-gasp 2-1 win over Wales and a 0-0 draw with Slovakia. Roy’s team dominated that final match but found it difficult to apply the finishing touch. They went on to lose 2-1 to Iceland despite taking the lead, and once again the lack of invention in forward areas was painfully obvious.
Slovakia qualified from the group in third place, but they were resoundingly beaten by Germany in the second round, and beyond Hamsik they have very few players of star quality. They were beaten 2-1 by Wales in their opening Euro 2016 group game, and the only successes in France were a 2-1 win over a poor Russian side and a backs-to-the-wall draw against England.
The Three Lions are +105 with Betfred to come away with the perfect start to this qualifying campaign, and although it’s been less than three months since that 0-0 draw, so much has changed for England that we should see a very different performance.
England to beat Slovakia
Sunday 4th September, 17:00 GMT
Wayne Rooney to Score the First Goal
Sunday 4th September, 17:00 GMT
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