England's soft centre all too predictably exposed again
By Mitch Phillips
MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) - For all the positives that England can take from their performance against Russia in their opening Euro 2016 game there remains the worrying issue that their sophisticated modern defenders remain vulnerable to the most basic of attacking ploys -- a long punt into the box.
England's creative play and assured possession is unrecognisable from that of many previous squads, who were routinely condemned for their lack of technical ability, and they well deserved the 1-0 lead earned by Eric Dier's 73rd-minute free kick on Saturday.
While the current crop of defenders are probably more comfortable on the ball than most of their predecessors, they do not bear comparison when it comes to their most important role -- preventing other players scoring.
England's 2014 World Cup campaign was brought to an early end after horrific central defensive positioning blunders that allowed Italy and Uruguay to score very basic goals and on Saturday they blew what should have been a first-ever opening-match victory in the Euros in similar style.
With the clock two minutes into stoppage time, Russia in possession on the halfway line and almost the entire England team camped outside their box, there should have been no danger.
However, substitute James Milner's half-hearted attempt at shutting down Georgi Schennikov allowed the full back time and space to measure his deep diagonal ball into the box.
For generations of England centre backs from World Cup winner Jackie Charlton to no-longer-welcome John Terry, that sort of ball would be the proverbial "meat and drink" and England would have been marching into their second game on three points.
Somehow, though, Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling managed to find themselves marking the least threatening opponents, while diminutive fullback Danny Rose was left at the far post to deal with the tall and determined captain Vasili Berezutski, with Dele Alli making himself redundant by getting out of position behind him.
Berezutski jumped high and early, as Rose was unceremoniously flattened, and his looping header earned Russia a point they scarcely deserved.
Roy Hodgson, perhaps understandably, was anxious not to sound too negative after a hugely uplifting display but he was barking at the moon when he claimed: "It was an unbelievably good goal and I don't think it came from any signs of mismanagement from us."
Having opted to bring only three central defenders and with back-up John Stones, for all his ability on the ground hardly an aerial Colossus, Hodgson has very few options should he want to rearrange his backline.
"Hopefully we'll be able to put the memory of this last-minute goal behind us," he said.
They can try, but remaining Group B opponents Wales and Slovakia are unlikely to let them.
(Editing by Clare Fallon)