Slovenia await England at the RheinEnergieStadion on Tuesday, with Gareth Southgate’s under-fire Three Lions aiming to win Group C and secure a potentially kinder last-16 tie.

England head into their final Group C outing of Euro 2024 top with a two-point cushion, assured of a top-three finish and therefore highly likely to go through to the knockouts. So, it’s all going as planned, right?

The Three Lions are on track, to a point. But their performances have been anything but impressive, especially the dour – and arguably fortunate – 1-1 draw with Denmark on Matchday 2.

Gareth Southgate and his team have come in for widespread criticism, with the manager struggling to make the most of the vast array of attacking talent at his disposal.

Having been pre-tournament favourites, few fans would now predict them to go deep into Euro 2024 unless something changes and fast. For what it’s worth, the Opta supercomputer still makes them third favourites, going all the way in 17.2% of the 10,000 tournament simulations.

Tuesday’s clash with Slovenia isn’t quite as do-or-die as it might’ve been, but it’s far from a dead rubber. After all, if England finish top of Group C, they’ll face a third-place team from Group D, E or F – currently, those are Austria, Slovakia and Czech Republic.

Were they to place second, the Three Lions would tussle with hosts Germany, while group winners – potentially Portugal – would await if they went through in third.

Tuesday’s game will settle their fate, and judging from the displays of the two teams so far, Slovenia have enough to worry England.

Ready to Exploit Left-Back Uncertainty

There are a few problem areas in the England team. To many, left-back is the chief concern simply because they don’t have one; Kieran Trippier, a right-back, has filled in across the first two games, but anyone can see he’s very much a square peg in a round hole.

Further complicating matters are the reports Trippier might be ruled out due to a calf injury. Now, Luke Shaw is in the squad and apparently back in training at long last, but let’s not pretend his situation is anything close to ideal; he’s not played any competitive football in over four months.

Considering his injury record, would it really be fair to expect him to come straight back into the team, look sharp and play the rest of the tournament?

Of course not; that’d be bordering on miraculous. Therefore, it would seem Joe Gomez as left-back or Bukayo Saka as a wing-back are the likeliest alternatives assuming Trippier doesn’t make it.

Sure, Gomez has played there ably for Liverpool and Saka does have history as a wing-back, but neither are anything like regulars in those roles for England. And therein lies an opportunity for Slovenia.

They’ve looked brightest down their right flank, with full-back Zan Karnicnik offering lots of width and possessing the stamina to get up and down the wing.

In the 1-1 draw with Serbia, his 76 touches were nine more than any other Slovenia player, while he also got the goal that put them ahead as he ghosted in at the back post to finish off a rapid break that he started with a timely challenge in the Slovenia half.

In the passing network graphic below, we can see how much wider they were on the right and by comparison how little influence came from the left.

Slovenia passing network vs Serbia
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

Karnicnik provides the width, and then ahead of him on the same flank, Petar Stojanovic sits a little narrower. It was in those channels that he caused problems for Serbia last time out, and there’s no reason they couldn’t unsettle England on that side.

In their last game, 43% of Slovenia’s attacks came from the right third of the pitch; England need to be alert to this.

Slovenia attacking thirds vs Serbia

Sesko the Sharpshooter

Benjamin Sesko got the big billing before the tournament, with the RB Leipzig talent seen as crucial to Slovenia’s hopes of upsetting the odds and getting out of the group.

Manager Matjaz Kek has said they’ll need to make a late call on the fitness of Sesko before this game, with his star striker reportedly training alone since Slovenia’s last match against Serbia. But with this an all-or-nothing encounter, we expect Sesko to go.

While he’s yet to score, it cannot be said he hasn’t threatened. But what’s interesting about the threat he’s carried is that Sesko has gone closest from distance.

Three of his four shots at Euro 2024 have been from outside the box. Seven players (max. two games played) have tried their luck from range more often than him, though several of those could count free-kick attempts among them; Sesko can’t.

Benjamin Sesko xG map

On Matchday 1 against Denmark, Sesko drilled agonisingly wide of the top-left corner from 30 yards and was then denied by the post when a stunning volley from a similar distance looked destined to provide a glorious equaliser.

In the draw with Serbia, he forced Predrag Rajkovic to tip over from distance – his one shot from inside the area in the tournament so far was sliced over when unbalanced with the goal practically at his mercy.

In the Bundesliga this season, only one of his 14 goals came from outside the area, but he’s shown how much of a danger he is from range in Euro 2024.

This is also pertinent not just because of the selection issues England have had in midfield, but Morten Hjulmand was allowed the time to shoot from distance last time out and he beat Jordan Pickford to equalise. Sesko has the quality to follow that example.

Denmark vs England xG map

Keeping It Tight

A common theme from England’s warm-up matches (well, the defeat to Iceland) and their two Euro 2024 games to date is how unconvincing they are breaking down their opposition.

Chances were hardly free flowing after Jude Bellingham’s early winner against Serbia, with England managing a total of five shots, and Harry Kane’s opener in the draw with Denmark accounted for roughly a quarter of their 0.87 expected goals (xG) – offering further evidence of their creation woes.

England xG map Euro 2024

England’s disappointing lack of cutting edge might be more understandable against teams going all out to defend, but their possession figures of 53% against Serbia and 49% against Denmark are hardly indicative of a dominant team throwing everything they’ve got at a stacked defence – as was the case in the friendly defeat to Iceland.

Slovenia will allow England more of the ball, that seems certain. Across their first two games, their 36% average share of possession is the second lowest at the tournament after Albania (35%).

And yet, we’ve seen little from England to suggest this will play into their hands. Southgate’s men have probably looked at their brightest in this tournament during moments of quick transition, and there’s theoretically going to be even fewer such moments against a Slovenia side likely to cede possession.

Not unrelated to that, we’ve also already seen how effective Slovenia can be in attack with such a setup. Their four shots following fast breaks leaves them second only to Spain (six), while their goal against Serbia came following an incisive breakaway and gorgeous low cross from Timi Max Elsnik, who’s caught the eye with his well-rounded style in midfield.

Slovenia goal sequence

Obviously, having a goalkeeper of Jan Oblak’s ability also helps a team feel more comfortable allowing the opposition to keep the ball. While we acknowledge we’re supposed to be highlighting Slovenia’s threats and he’s unlikely to be a danger in England’s area, Oblak does at least represent a potential barrier to England getting the goal(s) they may need to win the group.

According to Opta’s expected goals on target (xGOT) model, Oblak has prevented 1.8 goals already at Euro 2024, putting him behind only Italy’s Gianluigi Donnarumma (3.2), Georgia’s Giorgi Mamardashvili (3.1), Mike Maignan (2.5) of France and Thomas Strakosha of Albania (1.9).

Jan Oblak goals prevented Euro 2024

Let’s not forget, though, England have the talent to beat anyone and they should ultimately have no problem seeing off Slovenia to win the group and avoid the likes of Germany and Portugal.

But this is tournament football, where anything can happen, and the Three Lions aren’t exactly strangers to suffering shock results on the big stage.

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