England got their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign off to a winning start and lifted some of the pressure on coach Roy Hodgson thanks to two second-half goals from Danny Welbeck in Switzerland. With the knives at home being sharpened after a dismal World Cup and insipid friendly win against Norway, Hodgson badly needed a result and a performance to match, even if the ramifications for England of failing to get a result in what was on paper their toughest match of the group would have been far from serious.
Welbeck’s scuffed finish after a quick break in the 58th minute provided the crucial breakthrough and the new Arsenal signing secured a fine win away against a team that went one round further in Brazil with second goal in injury time. And, while Switzerland had their chances and it took a fine goal-saving challenge from Gary Cahill to preserve the visitors’ advantage, England gave a performance that was at least significantly more encouraging than it had been in a night to forget in a more-than-half-empty Wembley last week.
Much of that could be put down to the shape of the team and, in particular, the position Raheem Sterling occupied. It was recognition by Hodgson of the importance that the 19-year-old already holds in this England team that he was handed a role at the head of a diamond midfield, which also included full debutante Fabian Delph. And the Liverpool starlet continued to enhance his reputation with another fine outing and one that was highlighted by his low cross for Welbeck to shin in to get the crucial first goal and an incisive pass forward to for Rickie Lambert, who laid on Welbeck’s second.
Sterling had started out wide in a far too predictable, straight-lined, 4-4-2 formation against Norway, before impressing as Hodgson switched to a diamond late on. And that’s how England started at St. Jakob-Park, with Jack Wilshere doing a disciplined job at the base of midfield and Delph, just five days after coming on for his debut, on the left. There were some early problems, with the narrowness of the setup, allowing Switzerland’s two attacking full-backs and especially right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner to cause problems going forward. But England dealt with that issue by having Rooney drop out wide without the ball.
With the ball, England’s front three were lively throughout. Rooney, though, should have done better after being found by Sterling but only firing tamely at Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer 15 minutes in. Welbeck, too, was wasteful when getting a clear run down the left but failing to pick out either Rooney or Sterling in the middle of the penalty area. Another chance for Hodgson’s mean went begging shortly before half-time when Phil Jones’ free header was too close to Sommer, who made a fine low save.
But by the end of the first half, Switzerland were looking the more dangerous. Joe Hart had to save impressively with his right foot to deny Haris Seferovic’s effort after Jones’ error gifted the ball to Swiss dangerman Xherdan Shaqiri. There were further chances after the break for the hosts when Lichsteiner skied a shot over the bar and Seferovic was again denied by Hart. Shortly after that save, England pounced. The greater eagerness in England’s play was shown by the pressing, led by Sterling, which resulted in Gokhan Inler giving the ball away in midfield. Rooney led the swift break, found Sterling to his left and the lively teenager’s precise cross was missed by two Swiss defenders before being turned in by Welbeck at the back post.
As they chased an equalizer, Switzerland became the more proactive team. And they looked set to get on level terms when Seferovic got the benefit of a missed offside call and hared in on goal before going round Hart, but saw Cahill superbly slide in to deny his goal-bound effort. Still, England continued to look more dangerous than they have in some time going forward. And they should have had a penalty when Johan Djourou slid in recklessly on Delph in the box. It was not to matter, though, as Welbeck finished coolly in the fourth minute of injury time to end the late Switzerland pressure and allow Hodgson to breathe a heavy sigh of relief.
With matches to come against Lithuania, Slovenia, Estonia and San Marino, and the top two in the group making it to Euro 2016 and the third entering a playoff, it is highly implausible that England now won’t be in France. While new coach Vladimir Petkovic will be mighty disappointed with the result, the expanded 24-team format means it would also still be a huge surprise were Switzerland not to join them.