5 things learned from Big Sam’s first England game


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By Nilesh Patel

  • Five things we’ve learned from Sam Allardyce’s first game as England manager
  • England seal their first win of qualifying campaign with 1-0 win away at Slovakia
  • Adam Lallana secures the victory with a stoppage time goal
TRNAVA, SLOVAKIA – England leave it late to supply new England boss victory in his first game against Slovakia.



England were spared a disappointing draw thanks to an injury-time goal from Adam Lallana, starting Sam Allardyce’s reign with three points.

England’s attack struggled throughout the game to break Slovakia’s resilient defence in what was their second meeting in three months.

The game began to open up after the 57th minute when the home side were reduced to 10 men after Martin Skrtel was dismissed for a foul on Harry Kane.

England began to breach the Slovakian back four with continuous efforts until eventually their defensive resistance broke five minutes into added time.

Despite the three points being the obvious priority, there is much else to be learned from England’s first showing with Big Sam at the helm.


England and Rooney will be better off with him playing deeper in the midfield

In previous press conferences Allardyce had suggested that the England captain would return to a more offensive role against Slovakia and that the tactic of him playing deeper in midfield would be put on hold.

During Euro 2016, Roy Hodgson employed Wayne Rooney as a central midfielder, which alongside Eric Dier was one of the positives of the tournament. However Allardyce – with unwavering confidence in his captain’s attacking prowess – decided to test Rooney in a position just behind frontman Kane.

What became evident in the first half was the lack of space in Slovakia’s half, with their two banks of four, England found it difficult to go beyond the back line as their white shirts filled the pitch.

Naturally, Rooney began to come short for the ball which left him, Dier and Jordan Henderson all in a similar position; causing the 4231 formation to become a 4321 which resulted in a lack of English presence between the Slovakian midfield and defence. Fundamentally, this made the role of the central attacking midfielder non-existent for the Three Lions.

England became more offensive when Dele Alli came on for Henderson in the second half. Rooney was able to maintain a position in the midfield of the pitch to feed the other players, which he feels more inclined to do at this stage in his career. Alli was willing to breach the Slovakian defence, and he and Lallana created chances and trouble for the Slovak Keeper.

Whether it was a tactical ploy to play Rooney deeper or his own gameplay choice, it was clearly anexasperating night for England’s captain as his drifting inwards right from the kick off was ineffective.

It should seem obvious to Allardyce that England and Rooney work more effectively with him facing the play instead of receiving the ball with the defence on his back, particularly against teams which only look to counter-attack.  We can expect to see Allardyce test Rooney in this position in further qualifying rounds.

Allardyce has added more stability to the back

Although the English back five was not particularly troubled and only faced 1 shot in the whole game, the defensive performance deserves a short-lived pat on the back.

The Slovakian approach became clear from the start, just as they did in the Euros, they got all their men behind the ball nullifying their main creative outlet of Marek Hamsik. With this tactic, which England should have become more experienced with facing, the Slovakian offense was always going to attempt a counter-attack leaving England vulnerable when losing the ball in attack.

A mistake made in the Euros of the full backs committing too heavily to the attack was addressed by Big Sam. Full backs: Kyle Walker and Danny Rose were given the responsibility and license to surge forward and assist England’s attack but exhibited the discipline expected from an Allardyce side.

When one full back attacked, the other stayed and Dier became alert in central defensive midfield. Effectively this maintained at least four players with a defensive mind-set at all times.

Regardless of all the pushing forward that the full backs made, they must show a better end product for their efforts.

The centre back pairing of Gary Cahill and John Stones seems the most favoured partnership by Allardyce and rightly so. While both had no serious work to do, Stones was allowed gradual time on the ball and was given options by the midfield. Joe Hart and Stones showed a willingness to play the ball out, with the Manchester City defender acting as a creative influence to England’s attack.

It was evident that Stones has been given the freedom to bring the ball forward by Allardyce, just like he is being trained to by Pep Guardiola. Stones’ patience on the ball will be something which Allardyce will look to continue against the lesser sides of the group.


Striking options need more exploring

Allardyce started his first game with Kane as his front-man. Jamie Vardy being left out was justified as the Leicester top scorer thrives on the space beyond the opponents defence, knowing Slovakia weren’t going to leave that space Allardyce deemed Kane more effective in this game.

It’s a mean task asking a striker to play alone against a team which will defend narrow and resolute. With consideration to Rooney’s wandering backward, Kane was practically alone with only Lallana and Raheem Sterling to play off in the first half. In what was overall a miserable night for the Spurs striker, starved of service and support, Kane’s best contribution in the game was battling with the Slovakian centre-back.

Skrtel, the Slovakian captain, marked Kane for all his time on the pitch and the Englishman suffered rough treatment from the defender until his eventual sending off. Ultimately, that is was what changed the game.

As Kane remained non-impactful and low on confidence, he was substituted for Liverpool forward Daniel Sturridge. Sturridge looked lively, combining well with substitutes Alli and Theo Walcott, as well as with club teammate and eventual man of the match Lallana.

Sturridge has been restricted of minutes this season and did not have enough time to make a serious impression on the game. However, he did offer more pace in the attack which helped speed up the chances made for England which led to the winning goal.


Winning it late could be a more regular occurrence with England

Whether it be conceding or scoring goals in the late stages of a game, it has become a recurrent theme in England’s recent matches.

If a team plays averagely then nicks a win in injury time, usually the outlook is ‘a win is a win’, this was a saying which rang true at the end of this game. England ended the game with 64% possession and with 20 shots, five being on target. The Slovakian keeper was only continuously troubled after they were sent down to 10 men which was late on in the game.

Aside from the sending off, the game setup was awfully similar to the two teams encounter in Euro 2016. Slovakia sat back, England pressed to no award.

However the fact England managed to grab a goal may suggest Allardyce has injected more of a fight into his players. But the fact still remains that in their last two meetings England have attempted 49 shots against Slovakia only managing to score once.

The drama of late goals can date back to March in the first set of international friendlies prior to Euro 2016. England were 2-0 down to a youthful, yet experienced Germany. Vardy came on and changed the game, Kane resurrected the gap and Vardy equalised in the 74th minute. The game looked set for a draw until Dier headed in from a corner in the first minute of added time to win 3-2.

The same was seen in May. Vardy scoring in the 83rd minute against Turkey securing a 2-1 victory. Again in the second set of friendlies, this time against Portugal, Smalling scored using his head in the 86th minute to win 1-0.

Even in the opening fixture of the tournament England left it late to really damage their opponent. Dier scored against the Russian’s in the 73rd minute, despite an onslaught to their defence. In contrast, an equalising goal was conceded in the last minute of injury time.

The same applies to the fiery game against Wales. Sturridge coming on late to score in the first minute of extra time, grabbing a vital three points.

From a substitutions perspective, it shows the importance of having a strong bench that affects the game positively. More precisely, it could show a real insight into the unsteady mind-set of the English players. When conceding – are they not resolute enough to see a game out? When scoring – the players have the mental strength to play to till the end.

This leads to final point that we have learned from Big Sam’s first game.


Allardyce may look to psychology to help his players

A series of managers, pundits and ex-players have questioned the mental fragility of playing for England and putting on the England shirt. When the calibre of player was so high in the ’04 and ’06 tournaments, the Three Lions were dubbed the ‘golden generation’.

England had an array of players who had been winning the continent’s most coveted trophies but failed to replicate the success on an international platform. The pressure of playing for England can be seen to be so damning to the players and maybe even hold a player’s mentality responsible for tournament failings.

In press conferences leading up to yesterday’s game, Allardyce has alluded to changing the mentality of his players through sports science and psychology.

Allardyce is no newcomer when it comes to exploiting the areas of sports science. The manager has experience building up particular mentalities at the clubs he has worked at. As a manager who has never been relegated from Premier League football he is seen as the man to resurrect poor seasons and escape relegation zones against all the odds. When coming to these squads at the bottom of the table, with unconfident players in poor form, Allardyce has had to change the approach of the whole club to guide them to safety at the end of the season.

In order to improve the lack in confidence players like Kane, Walcott and Sterling have when playing in an England shirt Big Sam will have to change their mind-set. When playing for England the players never replicate the form they show at their clubs, Allardyce will have to tap into their state of mind and improve their approach to playing for England.

If Allardyce can find a way for his players to play freely and show their talents we may be watching an England which is not intimidated by wearing the England shirt.