After Roy Hodgson’s England team suffered a hugely embarrassing exit from Euro 2016 against minnows Iceland, the incoming manager could not possibly do any worse. Step forward Sam Allardyce. The first game in charge for Allardyce was a World Cup qualifier nine days ago against Slovakia.
The result was almost a repeat of England’s frustrating 0-0 deadlock against the Eastern European country in June at the Euros. Despite having dominated Slovakia in the final third on both occasions, once again England fell short of finding the back of the net until Adam Lallana’s last gasp 95th minute winner with virtually the last kick of the game.
Prior to the match, Allardyce remarked that he would be satisfied with a draw. While he would have preferred victory, he admitted: “if we get a draw from the most difficult game of the group, I’ll be happy.”
When Fenerbahçe’s Martin Skrtel was sent off in the 57th minute for mercilessly stepping on Harry Kane whilst on the floor, England were handed the advantage. In the post-match interview Allardyce conceded that “you’ve got to beat 10 men when it comes around.”
A draw against a resilient Slovak side in defence would probably not have posed too much of a issue for Big Sam’s men as England should still win a relatively weak group which also includes Slovenia and Lithuania, while neighbours Scotland emphatically defeated Malta 5-1 to top the group.
Maximum points from Allardyce’s first game could keep some of the criticism at bay such as his decision to let Dele Alli warm the substitutes’ bench, though there is the nagging feeling that Allardyce will classically underperform like his predecessors Steve McClaren, Fabio Capello and most recently Hodgson.
Meanwhile there was a flash of uncertainty over the role of captain Wayne Rooney. Although he was not explicit about Rooney’s position, whether in midfield or up-front, Allardyce expressed that he was content with the Manchester United forward’s display: “He did play a little deeper than I thought he’d play, but I was pleased with his performance.”
By contrast, Rooney’s new club manager Jose Mourinho, has revealed that Rooney will assume the position of the “number 10” or playmaker, or as a striker and added that Rooney should not be used as a midfielder.
The Englishman does not have the same experience at managing the Champions League level clubs and the big name players like his Portuguese counterpart who reportedly turned down the England job, but Allardyce is still probably the most qualified of the home-grown names.
Sceptics however may point towards Allardyce’s defensive style of play and ability to scrape victories. It worked last season in steering Sunderland away from the relegation zone, but it will not be enough against some of the world’s finest international teams.
Against Slovakia, England played a cautious first half, anticipating attacks which never came. This frustrated England in the first half and left Kane on his own up-front, unable to penetrate Slovakia’s defence until the game brightened up with the arrival of Kane’s Tottenham teammate Alli in the 64th minute.
“Slovakia just parked the bus” as Allardyce put it, just as they did at Euro 2016 and goalkeeper Joe Hart was never really tested, though centre-half John Stones demonstrated his passing accuracy as well as an aptitude in shutting down any incoming threat and was perhaps England’s best player on the night.
Elsewhere if Kane was missing from the match, then Lallana provided much more of a threat which included hitting the post and a few other close opportunities until he recorded a well-deserved first international goal.
It was by no means a dream start for Allardyce, but it will take a while to repair the damage done at the Euros. Barring a disaster, it is unlikely that Allardyce will be truly tested until he is to embark on the next World Cup.
Image courtesy of Matt Churchill