At halftime of England's match in Lens on Wednesday, they trailed Wales by a goal. A venomous Gareth Bale free kick that dipped past Joe Hart was the single moment of quality in an enormous tactical blancmange. England dominated possession, but only in front of the massed Welsh ranks. With the exception of a Raheem Sterling snapshot in the first few minutes, they'd barely created a chance. Manager Roy Hodgson wasted no time in switching things up, throwing on strikers Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge on in a bid to claw his side back into the match.
Come the final whistle, and both substitutes had scored in a dramatic 2-1 comeback win, likely sealing the Three Lions' place in the knockout stages. On paper, it's the work of a perceptive and pragmatic coach, who identified the weaknesses in his side's performance and took decisive action to rectify them -- making two substitutions with a half of football still to play is a bold move by anyone's definition. The introduction of Marcus Rashford, the youngest player at the entire tournament, looked equally sagacious by the final whistle.
And yet, Hodgson's substitutions ought not to have worked, at least not so well. England's first half problems were only partly caused by their personnel, and even then, not necessarily by the personnel he opted to withdraw. The real problem was in the immobility and impotence of their midfield, with neither Dele Alli nor Wayne Rooney offering sufficient movement either side of Eric Dier. They very rarely dropped deep to receive the ball from England's center backs, and in turn Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana were forced to hold harmless positions out on the flanks.
As a result, the standard passage of play involved a sequence of passes deep in midfield, eventually worked out to fullback Kyle Walker on the right. On the odd occasion that he did manage to deliver a cross, the three Wales center backs comfortably outnumbered Harry Kane. England were slow and static, and their buildup play exceptionally easy for Wales to defend.
How can you rectify such a fundamental tactical problem in 15 minutes? A few precise tactical instructions and the introduction of the dynamic Jack Wilshere into midfield -- probably in place of the utterly ineffectual Wayne Rooney -- would perhaps be the most rational option. But Hodgson, a man once described so aptly described by Barney Ronay as a "cardboard-blazered technocrat," threw rationality completely out of the window in favor of going full on an 8-year-old FIFA player.
The midfielders came off, and the strikers came on. As many as he could cram onto the field. Lallana, one of the few players in this England team with the deftness to unlock deep defenses, was one of the players withdrawn. Rooney, having been brought off in a much better performance against Russia, was left on for the duration. It really shouldn't have worked.
And yet, against all odds, it did, providing as entertaining a finish as we've seen so far at this tournament. There's no doubting that there is some serious talent in this England team, and it's embodied in Hodgson's three substitutions. Vardy once again illustrated his knack of being in exactly the right place at the right time. Sturridge, having spent so much of the season injured, illustrated his mastery of technique. Rashford, as noted by the BBC's Guy Mowbray, played with the fearless swagger of a teenager in the park. It wasn't the most tactically intelligent of wins, but it was a win all the same. And an exciting one at that.