The more England change, the more they remain the same
SAINT-ETIENNE, France -- Roy Hodgson must sometimes look at his available players and wonder what difference any of his choices makes.
If he maintains direction, the way he did between England's first and second matches at Euro 2016, he is criticized for his conservatism and his side looks flat. If he undertakes a near-complete shift -- the way he did before Monday's group-stage finale against Slovakia, when he changed out six of his starters, including captain Wayne Rooney -- he is criticized for his recklessness and his side looks flat.
Maybe England are less a country any more than a planet, locked into orbit. No matter who wears the jersey, in whatever order, led by whichever random beleaguered soul, perhaps their only possible path is a circle.
After another luckless draw, this one scoreless, Hodgson was asked whether he had made too many switches, whether he had crossed some line between innovation and gamble. "What would necessarily have changed?" he asked back. "Had Wayne started, he would have scored the goals that the others missed?"
What's the answer to Hodgson's question that feels right to you? "Probably not?" It's not as though evidence of alternative outcomes abounds.
England weren't terrible. They were just ... England. Even if you didn't see a minute of the match, you can imagine exactly how they looked. Like their opening draw against the Russians, when a poor late goal cost them a victory that they should have easily claimed, they put pressure on Slovakia, had their chances, were never especially threatened and still came away with nothing. They can point to some good saves made by Matus Kozacik and countless blocks by Jan Durica and Martin Skrtel -- "Some heroic defending," Joe Hart said -- but they still should have managed to find a way to win.
That win would have seen them top their group and with the easier way forward that that presumes. Instead, they finish second to Wales, who scored as many goals against the Russians on Monday as England have for the tournament.
Now Wales will play Saturday in Paris against the third-place finisher from Group A, C or D. England will travel to Nice on Monday to face the second-place finisher from Group F, possibly Portugal, to close the round of 16. A potential clash with France in Paris looms in the quarters.
"I'm happy to play anyone," Hodgson said. He was talking about his opponents. He could have also been talking about his 23-man squad.
Some of his changes worked. Nathaniel Clyne had a strong game at right-back, pressing so far forward at times that his footprints wore a little socket in the grass just outside the Slovakian 18-yard-box. The alignment of the English back line looked more like a check mark as a result. He made good runs and provided quality service, including a low cross in the 33rd minute that Adam Lallana ended up firing just a little too close to Kozacik. Clyne also had a decent chance of his own in the second half, but his tight-angled shot was saved.
(Who to play at right-back might represent one of Hodgson's most significant lineup dilemmas, if he still cares to consider them. Kyle Walker has also been playing very well, but the manager intimated that Clyne and Jordan Henderson, another one of Monday's new faces, had earned more playing time by his eyes.)
Other experiments were fairly obvious disasters. Hodgson rested Rooney, at least at first, in favor of the rusty Jack Wilshere. A series of giveaways led to the pair switching early in the second half, and mocking fans began an ironic Twitter campaign to see Wilshere named Man of the Match. That award went more deservedly to Kozacik.
The right balance seems so elusive, if it even exists at all, that Hodgson was asked after whether England have been taking penalty practice in preparation for the elimination shootout that undoubtedly awaits.
"We're not doomed yet," Hodgson shot back. "We're not doomed to penalties. We're not doomed to not score goals and take our chances. I believe we will."
(Yes, he also said. They have been practising penalties.)
Hodgson is a remarkable man in many ways. He has been given an impossible task, under the weight of immeasurable expectations, and he remains philosophical and patient and largely temperate when lesser men would have broken long ago. Even if he just pretending to be hopeful, he does a mostly good job of it.
But if it's not doom that shadows England, Hodgson's own questioning of change and its limits feels at least like doom's harbinger: inevitability. Even for the most optimistic supporters, it's hard to watch England and see anything more than what they already are. It's hard to imagine what could possibly happen that might put them on a different course.
Chris Jones is a writer for ESPN FC. He's on Twitter @EnswellJones.