For Roy Hodgson and England there were no excuses this time. Throughout the group stage they complained opponents were sitting extremely deep, determined not to concede space in behind, blunting the strengths of England’s quick attackers. Iceland were widely expected to pose a similar challenge, having defended in huge numbers in previous matches.
But, by the standards of Euro 2016, where smaller sides parking the bus has been almost universal, Iceland started with a high defensive line. These were the type of opponents England wanted and yet they still contrived to fail.
It took only three minutes before Iceland’s defence was breached with considerable ease. Daniel Sturridge drifted inside from the right and lofted a ball over the Icelandic defence, Sterling sprinted in behind, and the Iceland goalkeeper, Hannes Halldorsson, toppled him with a clumsy half-hearted challenge which suggested he simply wasn’t accustomed to this situation, having spent the group stage coming for crosses.
After Wayne Rooney had converted the subsequent penalty, this game appeared perfectly set for England to show their counter-attacking ability as Iceland pushed forward. Instead an immediate defensive mistake meant England never forced Iceland to chase the game.
England had scouted Iceland thoroughly, sending no fewer than five of the backroom staff to watch their 2-1 victory over Austria in the final group game. The first point on the subsequent report must have been Aron Gunnarsson’s incredible long throw, which created Jon Bodvarsson’s opener in that game, yet England completely switched off as he hurled the ball into the box for Iceland’s equaliser here.
It was an almost identical goal: a flat delivery from the right, a near-post flick-on, and this time Ragnar Sigurdsson – also outstanding at the back – provided the finish. The main culprit was Kyle Walker, and there was a similarity to the equaliser England conceded in their opening group game against Russia – then, it was Danny Rose outjumped by Vasili Berezutski, another centre-back up for a set-piece. The Tottenham full-back duo of Walker and Danny Rose have impressed with their dynamic attacking, but inside their own penalty box they remain unconvincing.
Would Iceland sit deeper having equalised? Not a chance. They continued to hold a high defensive line and, whereas other sides might have concentrated on guarding against counter-attacks, Iceland pushed a surprising number of midfielders into attack. The full-backs joined in whenever possible and Iceland’s winner arrived after an excellent switch of play to the right-back, Birkir Saevarsson.
Joe Hart’s inability to keep out Kolbeinn Sigthorsson’s tame shot was the obvious error but England had not protected the zone on the edge of the box either, allowing Iceland to play the type of quick combination lacking at the other end. So frequently have England been exposed in that area at major tournaments and, having barely been tested in open play during the group phase, they had conveniently forgotten those pre-tournament worries about defensive inadequacies.
At 2-1 down England started positively. The passing tempo remained high, they played some excellent diagonal balls into the left-back zone, from where Iceland had conceded two of their three goals in the group stage. There was, it seemed, a plan.
Iceland still refused to retreat. After an hour Jamie Vardy was summoned and soon raced on to a chipped pass in behind, forcing the outstanding Ragnar Sigurdsson into perhaps the tackle of the tournament – at full-stretch, at full speed, against England’s quickest attacker. That alone was proof Iceland were not parking the bus.
The final 15 minutes produced England’s worst football of the tournament: they panicked in midfield, miscontrolled short passes and overhit set pieces. Plan A went out of the window and the only obvious Plan B was introducing a fourth striker, with Marcus Rashford going down the left. His positive, carefree attitude underlined the nerves among his more experienced team-mates, who appeared too scared to take risks.
That weakness, rather than any tactical issues, was England’s most obvious problem.