England must stop living on brink to become legitimate Euro contender
It is time for Roy Hodgson and England to stop living on the brink. After two incoherent, inconsistent performances in Group B of Euro 2016, the Three Lions need to lay down a marker against Slovakia in Saint Etienne.
In the opening group stage match against Russia, England's wasteful finishing and hapless defending allowed a last-gasp equaliser that turned what looked like a competent start to the tournament into a disappointing 1-1 draw.
In the second match against Wales, there was an air of desperation about Hodgson's side. Again there was a late goal, but this time it gave England a 2-1 victory. It was not a clinical demolition of inferior opponents. England's second-half onslaught was less a tactical masterclass than a cavalry charge.
Make no mistake: When Hodgson's team reach the knockout stage, better teams will exploit the England manager's tactical flaws. The 4-2-4 formation that the team slipped into against Wales would be picked apart with ease by classier sides.
Slovakia are unlikely to have the ingenuity to trouble their rivals. Then again, you do not need much guile to compete with Hodgson's men. While England have an abundance of pace, a trio of dangerous finishers and young, exciting midfielders, Hodgson has struggled to find the right blend of players.
In the first two games, Hodgson started with Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling in the side, a pair of attacking midfielders. At first glance, this looks like an adventurous selection. Neither of these players scores enough goals, though, and although they threaten in wide areas, they could improve their final ball. What these two wingers have in common is they work hard tracking back. With Harry Kane leading the line alone, it meant England's cutting edge was blunted.
So don't be surprised if, against Slovakia, Sterling is left on the bench in the hope that Hodgson will use the 20-year-old's pace late in the game to worry tired opponents.
This would mean Hodgson has to realign his midfield and forward line. He is expected to replace Kane with Daniel Sturridge, whose late goal sealed the victory against Wales. This makes sense because Sturridge is better suited to the role of lone striker.
Deploying Wayne Rooney in a deeper midfield role has been a success in the first two games; the Manchester United captain has been given time and space to spray passes in the first two games and has looked good. Reports suggest, though, that he will be rested against Slovakia.
Rooney will find life tougher against teams that press harder when England are on the ball and pass with more precision after gaining possession in midfield but he has to play. He is the team's captain and elder statesman. In the knockout rounds, though, he may serve his side more effectively by remaining upfield rather than dropping deep.
Hodgson will be looking for a more cogent performance against Slovakia than in England's two previous games. Sturridge, the most gifted goal scorer in a squad with an abundance of fine strikers, must lead the line. With Rooney out, it is that Jamie Vardy will also start, while Marcus Rashford offers a threat as a late replacement.
England largely controlled Gareth Bale during the Wales game. Against Slovakia, they'll face a different sort of problem: Marek Hamsik, the Napoli playmaker, is more elusive in his movement and craftier than anyone England have faced so far. He operates in a style that is less familiar to English players and will present a test closer to the sort they will encounter once the group stages are over. How England midfielder Eric Dier and the defenders behind him cope with Hamsik will give an indication of how England will fare against the better teams.
Lallana has done enough to keep his place. Dele Alli has not been at his best, but his driving thrusts will concern Jan Kozak's team. As the games get tougher, though, he may need extra help in midfield. Jack Wilshere provides an attacking option, while Jordan Henderson and James Milner would make things more solid.
Nathaniel Clyne and Ryan Bertrand are set to play in defence against Slovakia and the back line must reduce it's proneness to mistakes and hair-raising moments. As the standards get higher deep in the tournament, the back four will need more bolstering from the midfield.
Hodgson is instinctively conservative. He picks players and then uses them in roles that do not necessarily suit their skills. Goalscorers become auxiliary midfielders, wingers get picked for their backtracking qualities. It creates a team without a sense of purpose.
Some of his choices beggar belief. Against Uruguay in the World Cup two years ago he picked a side with only two dedicated midfield players: Steven Gerrard and Henderson. England duly lost 2-1 to a weak South American outfit and failed to emerge from a winnable group.
This time England will reach the knockout rounds but Hodgson needs to find the right balance quickly. England have quality. Success is within their grasp. Failure is only a heartbeat away. The brinkmanship of four attackers in the second half against Wales will not work against the quality teams.
How they perform against Slovakia will give a good indication about which direction England are heading.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.