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Curative Football or Collective Trauma? Previewing England vs. Iceland

In our first preview of the Round of 16, Jonathan Wilson anticipates England's gameplan against Iceland, and asks whether Roy Hodgson's men can finally fulfil their abundant potential.

by Jonathan Wilson
Jun 24 2016, 1:45pm

EPA Images/Robert Ghement

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Perhaps there will come a day when England at a major tournament does not feel like a monumental collective trauma, but it has not come yet. Perhaps other nations go through the same process, but there's no other major football nation that has gone 50 years without silverware. The longer it goes on, the more inhibitive the sense of expectation and accumulated failure will be. Facing Iceland – a game but essentially limited side – should offer a good chance of passage to the quarter-finals, but it also feels like a classic England failure: an exit against a country with the population of Leicester (although admittedly that sounds less damning that it would have done a year ago).

England were not perfect in the group stage – far from it – but they weren't bad either. Roy Hodgson's gamble in making six changes against Slovakia will be cursed for thrusting his side into the tougher half of the draw, but it only really became tougher when Spain unexpectedly lost to Croatia 24 hours later. And while the draw against Slovakia, coupled with Wales's win over Russia, means the gamble will always be deemed to have failed, the intriguing aspect is that Hodgson was thinking ambitiously, resting players with a view to the semi-final and final rather than looking no further than the next game. And, as it turned out, facing Iceland in the last 16 isn't notably tougher than facing Northern Ireland, which they would have done had they topped the group.

Hodgson is perhaps more ambitious than people give him credit for // EPA Images/Peter Powell

Hodgson's ambition is rooted in the fact that he believes his England will be better against teams who come out and play against them. That faith is largely theoretical given that no side has attacked England in a competitive game since Switzerland in September 2014, but on that occasion England picked them off on the break and won 2-0. Certainly they have the pace in forward areas to be effective on the counter. But none of that is likely to matter against Iceland, who had 33.2% possession against Austria, 31.6% against Hungary and 29.9% against Portugal.

READ MORE: Three Lions, Fat Les and The Far-Right: How The England Team Affects National Identity

This will be another game of England toiling away against a side that will back men deep in two banks of four, and look to strike through set-plays and counter-attacks. The question is: how can England make themselves more efficient than they were in the group stage, when 64 shots yielded just three goals?

Is Jamie Vardy the man to fire England to victory on Monday? // EPA Images/Rolex Dela Pena

It may be that Hodgson decides that the predatory instincts of Jamie Vardy make him worth selecting, but the evidence of the Slovakia game seemed to confirm what had been evident from the 1-0 friendly win over Portugal just before the tournament: against a side that sits deep, Vardy's effectiveness is limited. Assuming Hodgson goes with the 4-3-3, which seems his preferred shape against defensive sides in an attempt to spread the play as laterally as possible, that probably means Harry Kane starting again through the middle with Adam Lallana again on one flank.

READ MORE: Roy Hodgson and The Cult of The Benign

With Raheem Sterling largely ineffective in the tournament so far, that leaves a question over who will play on the other wing. Daniel Sturridge could be used on the right and allowed to cut in on to his left foot, although there is an argument that he is more dangerous coming off the bench and playing through the middle against tiring defenders. Marcus Rashford, who spent much of his time in the Manchester United youth ranks out wide, could be a surprise starter on the flank, or Vardy could play there and use his pace on the diagonal. More likely, though – if Hodgson doesn't go for Sturridge – is that he will play Wayne Rooney wide with Jordan Henderson taking his place in the middle alongside Eric Dier and Dele Alli. Given that Hodgson would surely never start a midfield featuring both Rooney and Alli against a team likely to attack England, that's a further advantage of having changed the side against Slovakia and allowed Henderson pitch time.

Don't be surprised to see Rooney deployed out wide // EPA Images/Robert Ghement

For Iceland, it will be more of the same, a chance to continue a dream ride based on team spirit and work-rate more than anything more complex. "To do this with your best friends is fantastic," said the defender Kari Arnason, who joined Malmo from Rotherham last year and was man of the match against Austria. "We are a tightly knit group and what we have done is fantastic. It is extra fun to do it alongside my best friends and these supporters as well. 10,000 people from Iceland, it's unbelievable. It's like having your family at the game. I know probably 50 per cent of them."

READ MORE: Icelandic Holiday Company Offers England Squad Free Whale-Watching Trip

The long throw that brought Iceland's opening goal against Austria – Arnason flicking on for Jon Dadi Bodvarsson to score – suggested the threat they pose from set-pieces. "This is something we've trained for before," he said. "I'm not going to go into details. I want to keep secrets from the training ground. Of course we do have a few combinations."

The Iceland team celebrate their opener against Austria on Wednesday // EPA Images/Ian Langsdon

That's certainly a way in which Iceland could trouble Hodgson's side, but this is likely to be another case of England hammering on a tightly locked door. The question is whether this time they can find the precision or invention to open it.

@jonawils

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