Slovenia 0 v 0 England (11.10.2016)
As Big Sam soaked up the last of the summer rays on the Costa Brava, reflecting on ‘that dream job’ and what might have been, Gareth Southgate was plunged into the deep end of international football and tasked with plotting the downfall of Malta and Slovenia ahead of England’s latest round of qualifiers for Russia 2018.
With Malta coming to Wembley off the back of a 5-1 thrashing by Scotland, the tactics for Gareth’s first game in charge were simple: “let’s not lose against the Mediterranean giants lads”. Playing a lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation against Malta hardly set the pulses racing, and deep down those that regularly brave the Wembley home international experience feared the worst. I appreciate it’s easy to get sucked into over analyzing formations and tactics, but five in midfield against a team such as Malta – who crossed the halfway line a total of three times in 90 mins – was hardly risqué football, and baffled many.
When teams park the bus – as inevitably most sides playing England in qualifying seem to do these days – I get the point of trying not to congest an already congested attacking third. But in the opening 25 mins here there were times when England seemed to have hardly any options in the attacking third at all, such was their attempts to find space elsewhere on the pitch! Ok, tongue in cheek there, but England so often seem to lack the width, creativity and pace to turn opposition defenders, and as a result playing one up front just doesn’t seem to cut it!
As it happened, a pinpoint Henderson cross and an extremely well placed header from Sturridge put England one up on 30 minutes, and a second chance toe poke from Dele Alli nine minutes later put paid to my tactical assessment of England’s starting line up and shut the prospective Wembley boo boys up to boot! Chances taken, 2-0, game over and job done. Total football’s overrated anyway.
Although three points were in the bag, the manner of the performance gave some cause for concern as England’s consistent struggles to break teams down that park that proverbial bus rolls on. Perhaps England were saving themselves for the big one on Tuesday night.
Onto Ljubljana then.
Gareth throws in a tactical curve ball that has the whole of Fleet Street grabbing their biro’s and opening their Twitter feeds. Rooney dropped! England’s greatest ever goalscorer’s career was on the rocks. What did this really mean?
Well, what it really meant was that we’d play four at the back with two defensive holding midfielders against a nation that plays one up top. The knock on effect of that was clear for all to see on the night. The sacrifice of a 5th attacking option left Sturridge as the lone striker completely isolated up front. A role “for me Clive”, that Sturridge’s game just doesn’t seem built for. As talented a striker as he is, playing with his back to goal, bringing others into play, not to forget the work rate needed to make that position work aren’t his leading attributes. Anyway it wouldn’t be fair of me to focus in on one particular player, the general point being that for large parts of this game it seemed forward passing options and goal-scoring chances for England were as common as a red top not writing about Wayne Rooney sitting on the bench.
Ironically it was Dier and Henderson in their defensive midfield roles that provided the two best England assists on the night. Unfortunately they assisted the Slovenian front line to two ‘one-on-ones’, and if it wasn’t for Joe Hart playing an absolute blinder England would have come away from here with nothing. 0-0 then and a frustrating night for the 1,800 away fans that had made the midweek journey to the Slovenian capital. On the bright side two new songs beefed up the Englandfans chorus book: renditions of “Justice for Allardyce”….and “Fuck the Telegraph” we’re nicely slotted in between ‘Ingerland Ingerland’ and ‘God Save the Queen’!
The picturesque riverside area of Ljubljana….
To be honest I have a real soft spot for Slovenia. I have holidayed here many times, I even got married here! So maybe some bias on my part, but the Julian Alps and the mountain lakes of ‘Bled’ and ‘Bohinj’ in particular are ‘must go’ places for sure. The capital Ljubljana is well worth a stop off too – a small quaint city centred around a river (not unusual for a city come to think of it!) but here the line of riverside bars, cafes and restaurants that stretch right along both sides of the River Ljubljanica were perfect for ‘England away’.
Unusually we had booked on a chartered day trip for this one. Essentially this meant a ridiculously early start at Luton airport, a frustrating 2-hour on-plane wait for a slot to take off, and a delayed touch down in Ljubljana of 12:30pm. After a quick stop off at the FA’s hotel to collect our match tickets we basically had 7 hours to quench our thirst and embrace a riverside bar crawl. Ironically the first bar we stumbled across adjacent to the FA’s hotel was the aptly named ‘England Pub’ looking resplendent with a large 3 Lions sign hanging outside. Coincidental, or had Big Sam lined up an ‘external arrangement’ with the local bar owner before losing his dream job? Stop it!
As tempting as a quick pint in the England Pub was, we pushed onto the riverside for some proper Slovenian culture instead! Getting on the lash with rounds of ‘Lasko’ (pronounced ‘Lash-ko’… see what I’ve done there?) seemed appropriate at the time, but Bison Vodkas and shots of ‘Sadjevec’ this early on was just showboating.
The Stozice Stadium, home of NK Ljubljana is a small 16,000 new build stadium which was opened in 2010. Located only a few miles from the city centre, a 10 euro cab ride or the No.13 bus will run you out there in about 10 minutes or so. As you pull up at the Stozice sports complex you are greeted by the sight of a beautifully designed basketball arena. Resembling some sort of giant oyster shell the basketball arena takes the attention away from the smaller and slightly less impressively designed football stadium.
Classic Eastern European tower blocks provide a gritty backdrop to the modern ‘space age’ sports complex. A small bar located in the heart of the estate provided the perfect place for a few pre-match drinks amongst local Slovenes, who were extremely welcoming to the few stray England fans who were looking to keep it real!
As it turned out a few final cheeky vodkas just weren’t quite enough to take the edge off England’s drab performance. 0-0 and not even a goal to warm the cockles on a cold October evening! It’s early days in this campaign, but my initial assessment is I won’t be losing sleep over Big Sam’s departure, and I’m not Sure Gareth is the man to resurrect England’s fortunes – even if he only had 5 days to prepare with the team! Anyway, what do i know….
“Don’t take me home, please dont!…..Oh, go on, you know the rest!….
The famous Ljubljana Dragon!