So far, so good from England. It’s a familiar tale though, isn’t it? The Three Lions breeze through qualification only to come unstuck, looking woefully ill-equipped on football’s grandest stage. Russia 2018 has started in much the same vein with England undefeated from eight qualifying matches and only experiencing minor hiccups in the form of two draws.
One of those draws came at the hands of Thursday’s opponents, Slovenia. It was almost a year to the day that England lumbered to a goalless stalemate in eastern Europe – a fixture that marked the second match into Gareth Southgate’s tenure – and were it not for some Joe Hart heroics, it could have been a great deal worse.
The major talking point last time around concerned Southgate’s decision to drop national talisman Wayne Rooney, however, this game has a slightly less pressurised feel to it. The doubters remain ever-present, and many still bemoan the manager’s style of play, yet the fact is England are only one win away from Russia.
Without the suspended Dele Alli and injured Adam Lallana, England look set to revert to a 4-3-3 formation with frontman Harry Kane receiving support from the flanks courtesy of the in-form Manchester duo, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford. In midfield, expect a sturdy three of Eric Dier, Jordan Henderson and Jake Livermore. Defensively, despite his impressive displays for United this season, Phil Jones has had to pull out of the squad due to injury, paving the way for a John Stones – Gary Cahill partnership.
The only real debate to be had is in goal. Hart’s form has been less than exemplary over the past two years and all three of Fraser Forster, Jack Butland, and Jordan Pickford look ready to step-up and stake a claim for the number one jersey. For now, though, Southgate looks set to stay loyal to Hart in the hope he can recapture his form of yesteryear.
Slovenia may well match England up but with a slightly less orthodox frontline. Chievo Verona’s Valter Birsa could be deployed in a free role behind the strikers as he looks to find space between the line’s. He has been capped 87 times by his country and will be relied upon as a creative outlet when Slovenia get the chance to break. Hoping to be on the end of such ingenuity is Vitesse striker, Tim Matavz. The Eredivisie marksmen has been in hot form this season, netting five times in seven league appearances.
Style of play
Slovenia will see this as a crucial game to keep alive their hopes of qualifying. They will set up in a compact, low-block and look to take advantage of any counter-attacks or set-pieces that may fall their way. Breaking them down – as shown last time around – can be a lot harder than what pundits give credit for. England’s issue will be trying to find space to exploit in the final third and make use of their dominance in possession. Intriguingly, this makes their defence crucial to their attack.
Both full-backs will look to overlap and overload the flanks, helping to support Sterling and Rashford. This also stretches the pitch and with Slovenia not expected to play with a great deal of width, seems a small risk. Watch out for the movement of both Stones and Dier as well. When the full-backs push on, Dier will drop to form a back three, something he does occasionally for club side Spurs. Stones will also look to bring the ball out from the back and aid midfield creativity when starting attacks. With a stunning pass completion rate of 96.3% this season, his forward passing will be integral to disorganising Slovenia’s regimented marking.
Slovenia will hold strong but at some point, will have to show attacking intent if they harbour real ambitions of qualifying for the World Cup. England are at home and have a striker in Harry Kane who has been scoring for fun – it would be a surprise not to see him add to his outstanding tally Thursday evening.
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