England played against Russia like a team that could win this tournament, but also like a team that almost certainly won’t. It’s the usual story: you worry about them getting tired. In the first half they looked at times like world-beaters – Euro-beaters anyway – but the second half wasn’t so good (it very rarely is for England at big tournaments) and in the end they couldn’t hang on. So far, so familiar. However, it’s more specific than that. This time you worry about them getting Tottenham tired.
Five of the starting eleven against Russia are Spurs players and they were among the best performers on the pitch. Walker, Rose, Dier and Alli all looked sharp and eager (we’ll come back to Kane later). But they have all come off a grueling and ultimately disappointing domestic season. They also play week in, week out for a manager who drives his teams hard and expects them to outlast their opponents. For most of the season Spurs did this but in the end they ran out of puff. Pochettino has form here: at Southampton he also produced a hard-running team that couldn’t stay the course of an entire league campaign. Relying on the current Tottenham side to carry England to glory is like hoping you can get through the whole day without taking your phone charger with you. Maybe you can, but not if you plan to spend much time using it.
All great club managers drive their teams hard and eventually tire them out. Wenger seems to leave his Arsenal sides mentally exhausted by about February every year. Mourinho eventually runs every side he manages into the ground, though he is careful not to do it until they have won a few trophies first. He leaves his players broken, but his personal reputation enhanced: nice work if you can get it. Ferguson made sure his teams came on strong in the second half of the season, even if that meant going easy on them in the first.
What none of them do is think about what it means for the national teams who have to drag themselves through yet another tournament once the regular season is over. That’s the job of the national managers. But they rarely seem to factor in how their players have been used and abused over the previous ten months. Kane had a great season for Spurs, so Hodgson starts him up front. But Kane already looks exhausted.
Between them, Kane, Alli and Dier played 147 games for Spurs last season, which is a lot. Kane is a better and more versatile player than Vardy, other things being equal, but other things are not equal. Vardy only had to play 38 times for Leicester, compared to Kane’s 50 for Tottenham. The biggest reason Leicester finished ahead of Spurs is that their players spent a lot less time on the pitch (since the team had fewer commitments in other competitions) and so were able to hold their form to the very end. It’s not romantic, but it’s the truth: by the time you get to April and May, miles on the clock count for just as much as tactics and talent. And by the time you get to June and July, maybe for even more.
That’s why being a national team manager must be such a thankless job. Fans want to see the best players on the pitch. They also want some romance – this is England, after all. Beginning the tournament with Vardy in the starting line-up in place of Kane would have looked like an admission of defeat: he doesn’t really have the pedigree to be the figurehead of a serious assault on the trophy. Even now, dropping Kane might look like cowardice. Hodgson will probably do what he always does and hope that class will out. It would be lovely if he were proved right. But history suggests that class will simply run out of steam instead.