If ever there was an appropriate and apt time to use the cliché, “a game of two halves”, then this match certainly was it.
England started this match where they left off against Sweden: poor final ball, no width, little invention. And when Chrien punished them with a flicked header for their sluggish football, a lot of hearts were in mouths. England’s nerves grew as the clocked ticked by, and the player’s were visibly frustrated on the pitch as their game plan went out of the window. This was not in the script, much like Iceland’s win in the senior Euros wasn’t last year. The goal prompted a chorus of the Icelandic claps from the Slovakian fans to torment England and brought back those awful memories from the game.
Whether it is the senior team or the youth team, England’s weaknesses are most exposed when they are up against a mediocre nation who are tight at the back. And we saw it again this evening. When faced with the challenge of breaking down the opponent, England cracked under the pressure. This team, full of Premier League players, all who should go on to have fantastic careers, did not use their qualities or their pace and paid the ultimate price. A cross was whipped in which met the head of Chrien, he leaped seamlessly above the three England defenders marking him and directed it into the top right corner of the goal. There were no defenders on the goal posts. Why? It was a terrible set up. From that moment, England struggled. They were lifeless, Slovakia cruised towards half time.
Credit to Aidy Boothroyd, the England u21 manager, who kept the same set-up and kept believing in his players despite them being moments from crashing out of the tournament after just two games. Strong words must have been uttered in the dressing rooms because England came out a new team. Finally, England overcame their frailties. When things got tough, they dug deep. They kept faith, and carried on battling. They stuck to their original game plan and despite a few wobbles, England came out on top.
Slovakia were the architects of their own downfall when Chovan, the goalkeeper, failed to hold onto the ball from England’s corner, and the ball came to Redmond who laid it off to Murphy who whipped in a sublime cross which found Mawson whose original shot was saved. But he didn’t stop there, on the rebound, he rammed it into the net and unleashed his frustrations from the first half on the netting.
England kept on coming, this time it was a low-driven cross by Baker, and it would have been 2-1 had it not been for the heroics of the Slovakian defender who intercepted. Murphy, high on confidence, then attempted a long-range, low-driven shot but it was too easy for Chovan. Then, the goal finally came. Ward-Prowse hit an inch perfect lofted ball towards Redmond who was on the left edge of the Slovakian penalty area. He cut inside and hammered the ball towards goal. It sailed past the hapless Chovan in the net after taking a deflection from a defender.
This evening, England were moments from going home, but they proved their mettle to overcome the brave, spirited Slovakian side. If England do get out of their group, they need to be better than this. They were lucky tonight, and when they come up against tougher opposition they will be obliterated unless things change.
Slovakia XI: Chovan 5,Valjent 6, Ninaj 5, Skriniar 6, Mazan 6, Lobotka 6, Ruznak 6, Bero 7, Chrien 8, Mihalik 6, Zrelak 6
Subs used: Benes 6, Haraslin 6, Safranko 6
England XI: Pickford 6, Holgate 4, Chambers 6, Mawson 7, Chilwell 6, Swift 6, Ward-Prowse 8, Chalobah 6, Redmond 8, Baker 6, Abraham 7
Subs used: Murphy 8, Gray 6, Woodrow 6
Man of the Match – Ward-Prowse