England need to generate some joy - but they should still stay cautious against Slovenia

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The fans and media want England to go on the warpath against Slovenia on Tuesday - but that might not be such a great idea.

It takes extreme circumstances to unite the entirety of English football fandom behind a single opinion, but Gareth Southgate and his side seem to have managed it – England were dour against Serbia, drab against Denmark and dismal overall, and it may well be that every single person across the country who flies a little St. George’s Cross from the flank of their car thinks that the Three Lions should be far more adventurous and attacking for the coming game against Slovenia. Then again, majority opinions usually seem to be wrong. Just look at our collective national voting record.

So, have the English public got it right this time? Shouldn’t we really be taking the game to Slovenia, if only to lighten the mood a little? After all, there’s no question that England have the better squad man for man – only goalkeeper Jan Oblak and sought-after striker Benjamin Šeško would have a chance of getting a cap were they born on this side of the Channel, after all. This should be a bloodbath, really… right?

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Of course, not many bad teams make the European Championship, even the expanded 24-team version, as teams like Georgia and Albania have already demonstrated. Even poor old Scotland played quite well against the Swiss, and they did far more to cheer England’s fans up than their own in Germany. Slovenia are unbeaten in eight games, finished behind Denmark in their qualifying group only thanks to head-to-head record, and are generally far more disciplined and difficult to beat than the English public have perhaps given them credit for.

After all, it took Serbia until five minutes into injury time to find an equaliser against them in the last round of group stage games, and that was a game in which Serbia did what they could to take the initiative and boss territory and possession, only to fall largely into Slovenian hands. True, the gulf in class should be larger on Tuesday evening, but there is still a clear risk that if England do decide to break the shackles and silence the critics with a swashbuckling, attacking display, they could be doing exactly what Slovenia want.

Matjaž Kek’s team is built around the counter-attack. Playing with two deep banks of four and a pair of strikers (at least one of which, usually Šeško, often drops back to join the midfield in defence), they don’t look to press high, they don’t look to force turnovers and they don’t try to set the tempo. Instead, they drop back, let the opposition come onto them, and spring the counter at every possible opportunity. And they’re good at it.

Of the 14 matches they have played as a nation in the last year, they have lost just one, a 2-1 defeat in Copenhagen against Denmark. Slovenia may lack starry names but they are organised, tough as teak and know how to grind out a result – as they have, at least to the extent of one point, against both Denmark and Serbia at this tournament, both games which the bookmakers had them down to lose.

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And they were both games which played out in near-identical fashion, right down to the number and nature of the chances the two teams had. They do allow shots on goal (16 for Denmark, 15 for Serbia) but most of them are little more than half-chances and they conceded just three shots on target in both games. Their individual quality at the back may be limited, but they play well as a team to shut attacks down and they have a first-rate goalkeeper for when things don’t go according to plan.

In other words, the idea that England can just hit the accelerator and roll a team like Slovenia over appears unlikely to prove true. This is not a team that lie back and let you tickle their tummy, and they are perfectly comfortable going without the ball for long periods – and they know how to bite back when the chance presents itself.

Their opening goal against Serbia makes the point well enough. It was a sharp counter involving just two players which came about because Serbia over-committed and made a mistake down their left wing, allowing right-back Žan Karničnik to win the ball back, hare into the Serbian half, play what amounted to a cross-field one-two with midfielder Timi Max Elšnik and eventually bundle home from close range.

Granted, the goal was preventable even past the initial dispossession – Karničnik’s pass was slightly behind Elšnik and could have slowed the move down too much, while the full-backs run into the box could have been tracked by a better defence, and one would hope that England would not make the same mistakes given the talent they have. But it proved that Slovenia know how to exploit those chances to break and know how to punish teams who grow overconfident and over-commit to attack.

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And they can punish teams who concede possession in seemingly less threatening areas, too – the slightly unfortunate Šeško has mostly been used as a workhorse so far but rattled the crossbar from 25 yards against Serbia and smashed one into the right-hand post from only a little closer against Denmark. If you push the midfield too high, you risk giving an extremely capable, confident and in-form striker the room to take on long shots he is more than capable of scoring with.

So while practically every fan in a white shirt will spend Tuesday evening imploring their team to attack more, to play faster and harder and to prove that they can be more than the drab, beige outfit we’ve seen in the first two matches, it may not be such a smart idea. Sure, England should beat Slovenia. But treating Slovenia as if they are hopeless when they have proven themselves to be eminently competent is absurd – and treating them with the respect they are due means not going too gung-ho.

Besides, England only need a point to guarantee passage through to the next round. They will probably still go through with a defeat, as well, after Scotland’s last-gasp defeat to Hungary last night, but why chance it? Why go for broke when there’s no need, and increase the risk of a humbling and humiliating defeat?

A dreary 1-0 win on Tuesday isn’t what anyone wants, but it’s a lot better for morale (both among the public and the playing squad) than a draw or even defeat, and Slovenia are more than capable of getting something if England go crazy and don’t get it right. Play with patience and control, and England can probably stave Slovenia off for most if not all of a 90-minute match while creating enough of their own chances to score, and that’s probably the smartest way to play – even if it wouldn’t necessarily be too much fun to watch. This might be a game in which Southgate’s conservatism and limitations as an attacking coach work in England’s favour.

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