I maintain this; that this team that Hodgson has been putting out, and the system being deployed is the best I've seen in in my life as an England fan. It's just good to watch - it has balance, players who have a good amount of quantity - Arguably no sexy individuals who you throw on to *be* the game, but I do feel that there are some class players in the setup; Daniel Sturridge, who on form is the best English striker; Eric Dier, a player in which England may have finally found their deep-lying pivot; Danny Rose, a strong left sided defender who may be the answer to finally replace Ashley Cole - And on the right, there's a battle between Nathaniel Clyne and Kyle Walker. Couple that with the different variations possible with players like Lallana, Alli, Henderson, Rooney, Kane, Vardy and Sterling... Good problems.
So tonight England play Iceland - The fairytale team. How many times have you heard about the size of their population, the feel-good nature of their team and who can forget that commentator when they scored in the last minute? As the kids say, "Scenes."
But England are going HATE playing against them.
Deep lying defences
In the group stages, England have been unfortunate to play three teams who were a) happy to not have the ball, and for one reason or another b) happy to sit deep and let England attack them. This is not good news, particularly for a country where fans and media are disgusted by wages, perennially pessimistic and fans sit in pubs slapping the table yelling "Just do something!", "How hard can it be?!", "My nan coulda scored that!" while shaking their head, moments before someone amongst their group wisely notes "This team is crying for a plan B - where's Andy f*ckin Carroll?!" (I'm looking at you Glenn Hoddle)
The hardest part of this is the penetration - Against Russia, there were 4 defenders PLUS the two sitting midfielders, with the centre-backs barely venturing a few yards away from the 18 yard box they were defending. (Passing networks via @11Tegen11)
Against Wales, the 5-2-2-1/5-3-1-1/3-4-2-1 thing that they play was difficult to break down due to Allen and Ledley dropping to the edge of the 18 yard box to protect Williams, Chester and Davies (the three centrebacks) meaning that the 'good' positions to score (central, around the penalty area) were congested as hell. Moreover, the full-backs were happy to be pinned back to stop the cross - and despite this, England still created some chances, some half chances. Mega deep.
Against Slovakia, England faced a team who didn't really want to play - with a back four who sat deep again, with Slovakia content to play in triangles on both flanks.
In all three of these games, England pressed high, with good ball recoveries in these areas and the players linked up well - But the pass they were looking for in the channels and on the inside space between the 18-yard box/6-yard box was an area which they weren't able to exploit.
And this struggle is why I'm concerned about how England will fare if they don't get a fast start.
Let's take a few things into account;
Iceland haven't exactly been dominant in the games they've played in. They've had under 40% of the touches in the games they've played in - with the highest being 487 touches vs Austria (846) at 36.5% of the touches in the game. Further, they don't exactly shoot much - against Austria they took 11 shots - compare that to 4 against Portugal and 8 against Hungary. Sure, you can argue that they're getting more and more comfortable on the ball, and working it into areas where they can take a shot - But more importantly the trend here is tonight is going to be more of the same in this tournament for England... A well drilled formation who will be hard to break down, and will be happy to not have the ball and break when they can.
Conversion rates is something that England have to be wary of - Having not been able to finish their dinner vs Russia and Slovakia, and using all 5 strikers against Wales, it's not been a shining performances for a team who have often been mentioned with respect to the 'quality' and 'options' they have in this area.
Iceland have been the opposite - a conversion rate of 25% vs Portugal, 12% against Hungary and 18% against Austria - You can infer that when they get their chances, they take them. Cahill, Smalling and Dier will have to be alert - And more so will Joe Hart, who has looked a bit shaky on crosses this season. (I am definitely not a goalkeeping expert, so I'll skim over this part)
Iceland seem to play a flat 4-4-2, and what's worse, is they play direct football - Truly the Leicester's of this European Championships! Their 'star man' Gylfi Sigurdsson has been occupying a deeper role as a central midfielder, but in reality he has been all action - from the way they seem to play you can see that the 'route one' option is for the goalkeeper to go long and hit their big man - Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, with last minute hero Jon Dadi Bodvarsson the man who's the highest up. The team as a whole seem to enjoy be successful at contesting long balls, with the 2nd highest success rate of aerial duels, second only to (surprisingly?) France.
The right hand side seems to link up often too, with Gunnarson being the link between the midfield and defense. However, though the right hand channel seems to be favoured against Portugal, it doesn't seem the case in the games against Hungary and Austria. In terms of shooting potential, it seems to be largely Sigurdsson and Bodivarsson taking their shots, and the pass accuracy is a 60.9% - The lowest in the tournament. (average positions below)
Teams, Teams, Teams.
England will be content to have the ball, but I feel that England will need someone like Raheem Sterling and Danny Rose on the left, with the Clyne-Lallana link on the right which looked very good against Slovakia. The question comes to midfield; Rooney will inevitably start (he's been calm, assured & gives a scoring option) (God, I sound like a United fan) (But he's not _completely_ awful, and still has ), but who alongside him? This all depends on who's up front.. If Sturridge continues then Henderson should surely get the nod. Secondly, starting Henderson or even Milner gives a) legs in midfield (to support Dier on the inevitable long ball counter attacks) but also the 'Liverpool' flank on the right. These club relationships will be vital in the coming rounds, I think; and b) that Dele Alli is a great option off the bench - Whilst, lets be honest, bringing on Henderson or Milner is hardly a substitution which strikes fear in the opposition hearts, and will rarely excite any crowd at Anfield, let alone at the Euros.
I envisage Roy's team may bring in one of Milner and Henderson to sit with Rooney and Dier, Sterling will return on the left and Clyne will take Walker's spot. With Lallana and Milner playing, there's (again) potential for England to change formations from 4-1-2-3 to 4-1-2-1-2 or even 4-2-3-1 - However, I given the doubts about Lallana's fitness, I wouldn't be surprised to see a front three of Kane, Sturridge and Sterling - With Sterling offering the option to play as a #10.
And this is what I like about this England team - There's a dynamism that hasn't existed before. And as long as they can get a fast start to get Iceland to come at them, I envisage a good game for England. My only concern remains Hodgson's game and player management - As to who comes on for who and when... Especially if England are being frustrated again up till the 60th minute mark.
On paper, this should be a very routine win - The Icelandic players will be hungry, and excited but will be told to play their disciplined compact game and play to their strengths. Key for England is to be dynamic through the game, change systems and re-capture the fantastic movement we have seen by them in glimpses in this tournament. And for me, getting an early (0-25 minutes) goal is *vital*. It means Iceland have to come out and meet England, England can drop into a passing rhythm - But protecting the lead means discipline, which is where the experience of Cahill and the quality of Dier hopefully will shine through. England should be hungry - They've had two extra days off because they didn't top the group, to rest, prepare, train and develop. As @unfitforpurpose mentioned on Twitter - the bizarre thing is, the players seem calm and aware of their skills, whilst it's the fans and media who are whipping up a frenzy.
As I've bleated on throughout, this could be the tournament where England actually manage the tournament, than trying to get off to a fast start - the momentum is definitely building.
Now is the time to make it count.