As a nation of football fans, it’s only natural that fans of the national team share differing views on what exactly is the right way forward for England. Whether it be a debate over what formation we’d select, the players that do or don’t deserve places in the squad and starting line up or simply who should captain the side, ultimately everybody can act as the next best equivalent to Roy Hodgson – especially after a defeat and none more so than in a World Cup competition.
In a group where a hand gesture from the FA Commission leader Greg Dyke following the announcement we were to come up against both Italy and Uruguay in Group D, summarised everybody’s thoughts of England’s chances of progressing from a tough group, it could be argued that maybe England’s opening game defeat should have been expected. In a game where many (me included) would have took a valuable point against a strong Italian team prior to kickoff, England once again found themselves on the receiving end of an Andrea Pirlo masterclass in football. Dictating play from beginning to end, Italy’s star man played a key role throughout as Marchisio and ‘super’ Mario Balotelli got the all important goals to secure Italy all three points and condemned England to an opening game defeat. Admittedly it wasn’t all doom and gloom for England who at times did show glimpses of real quality with the likes of Raheem Sterling and Danny Welbeck producing impressive individual performances alongside Daniel Sturridge’s supremely well taken goal, the general feelings of the 15m strong viewing public/part-time England managers on a whole, was that things do need to change (and quickly) should we stand any chance of qualifying from the group.
But where do you begin?
Hopefully, I’m going to try and pick out the four key talking points we can take from Saturday’s game and and try to answer how England could change ahead of the all important make or break match against Uruguay this Thursday.
So let’s get started with the mysterious case of a certain Manchester united striker…
The Curious Case of Wayne Rooney
Out of position? Out of form? Or would you just rather have him out of the starting XI altogether? No matter what you think of Wayne Rooney’s footballing ability, anybody who watched Saturday’s match against Italy could tell Wayne Rooney was nowhere near his best. Some put it down to the pressure of performing on the world’s biggest stage, some suggest a season of ups and downs at club team Manchester United may have led the underperforming Rooney we witnessed against Italy, whilst some simply put his poor performance down to Hodgson’s decision to play him out of position on the left wing rather than behind a striker or in fact leading the line as Daniel Sturridge did.
My personal take mirrors that of many I have read on various social media platforms following the game and that is the latter. Unquestionably, Wayne Rooney is England’s most gifted and technical player in recent times since Paul Gascoigne and his role within the side is a double edged sword for Roy Hodgson. If he includes Wayne Rooney and he fails to perform, Hodgson is criticised for not rotating the squad and opting for players in better form. Yet should England still to fail to win or produce a good performance without Wayne Rooney in the starting XI, the finger of blame would soon turn to the England manager’s decision to omit such a talented footballer.
But for me, the answer is simple. If Wayne Rooney plays, he needs to play in a position where he can be most effective, whether that be in the number nine position as England’s leading centre forward and therefore displace Sturridge or to play just behind Sturridge in the so called ‘number ten’ role, allowing the likes of Raheem Sterling, Danny Welbeck, Adam Lallana and James Milner to operate the wings and provide cover for the full backs when the opposing team presses forward. It’s all well and good scapegoating the Manchester United striker but in my eyes, to not play somebody with such incredible talent as shown many, many times over the years in the Barclays Premier League, is unfathomable. Inevitably if he continues to under-perform, I fully believe that not only Roy Hodgson has enough about him to drop Rooney as and when necessary but also that Rooney fully appreciates that his place in the side is not guaranteed. Therefore, in regards to the curious case of Wayne Rooney, he would still be one of the first names on the teamsheet against Uruguay for me, as long as it’s in a position where he works best.
Roy Hodgson’s Tactics
Maybe not as well documented as some of the other’s I will speak about, but after such a defeat it’s only fair to look at Hodgson’s tactics and speculate as to whether anything else could have been done to stop Italy winning in the manner they did. In a 4-2-3-1 formation, England have looked settled throughout the qualification stages and also in the preceding friendlies to Peru, Ecuador and Honduras before the beginning of the World Cup competition. And as a firm believer of not fixing something unless it’s broken, I think the England manager was right to stick with the formation which has worked so well in the past and for me a tactical change isn’t what is necessary.
Many have come out publically to suggest maybe alternating it so that both Sturridge and Rooney can support each other with two upfront, or possibly playing three central midfielders with the likes of either Liverpool midfielder Gerrard or Henderson in a holding position with either one or Ross Barkley playing in a more attacking role, perhaps in a 4-5-1 formation. The only other option would be a 4-3-3 with one striker supported by two quick wingers either side and three midfielders holding the fort at the centre of the pitch. However for me all these suggestions are invalid as I genuinely believe England work best in the 4-2-3-1 formation which has been the benchmark and set up for several years and I personally think Hodgson is right in sticking to his guns and setting up his starting XI in the way he did against Italy.
Glen Johnson vs. Phil Jones
Another area of England’s performances not solely against Italy but also in the friendlies prior to the tournament is the RB position. Glen Johnson has held the position as his own for several years now and looked comfortable especially in South Africa 2010 and at Euro 2012, but has since looked uneasy for England playing in his usual position. As far as other options go, Hodgson could only really look to Kyle Walker who was unfortunately sidelined by injury earlier in the 13/14 season and Phil Jones who can play both at right back and at centre back. Hodgson did take time to experiment with James Milner as a right back and later right wing back but his performance was to be expected of a right winger filling in at the back alongside three experienced defenders.
Therefore it comes down to a decision between Glen Johnson and Phil Jones and who is better for the role. Admittedly, Glen Johnson hasn’t looked his best recently but out of the two, I do still believe he is the right man for the job. Had Kyle Walker have been fit and included in the squad, maybe I’d have been typing something different right now but out of Johnson and Jones, I’d still opt for the Liverpool right back over the former Blackburn Rovers defender. Not only will his experience count but as a player, he does provide a constant attacking threat and a reasonable pace down the wing which Leighton Baines can’t match. If he manages to recapture his best form, he’ll certainly help shore up England’s defence and stop the conceding of seemingly simple goals and for England’s sake, let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later. Otherwise, arise Phil Jones.
Roy Hodgson’s Team Selection
After every defeat, you can blame the manager, blame the referee, blame the weather/pitch/conditions but ultimately the blame has to on the players. When Manchester United went through a rocky patch under David Moyes, although he ultimately took responsibility for their dip in form compared to the 12/13 season and consequently lost his job as manager, many pointed out that the players were as equally as responsible and in the event of any defeat, it’s only fair to look at those selected and question whether alternatives may or may not have done a better job. Would Luke Shaw be a better option than Leighton Baines? Did we miss Alex Oxlade-Chaimberlain? Would James Milner or Adam Lallana been a safer bet than the likes of Raheem Sterling or Danny Welbeck? Is Jordan Henderson attacking minded enough and if not, would Ross Barkley be better partnering Steven Gerrard? Did we need experience in the form of Frank Lampard? Do we miss the experience of Ashley Cole, Jermain Defoe and John Terry? Evidently, all of these are questions that have been asked regularly in the various post-match discussions on social media and in England’s world cup television coverage and make valid claims for several individuals and their place in the England starting XI.
For me, the team selection was near enough spot on although I do believe that Adam Lallana should have been handed a started position over Danny Welbeck. As many of my closest friends know, I’m not the biggest fan of Welbeck and even I was the first to admit that I was impressed by his showing against Italy on Saturday. Yet despite the flare and attacking style of play, I still think Adam Lallana would have been a much safer option in going forward, thus allowing Rooney to move into a central position behind Daniel Sturridge and to exploit the pace of Raheem Sterling on whichever wing opposite to Lallana. Apart from that, Hodgson’s team selection was spot on and his introduction of Ross Barkley was the right call for that part of the game.
Maybe an earlier introduction of James Milner or Adam Lallana for Welbeck or maybe even Rooney who struggled against the Italians could have been an area which Hodgson could have acted on earlier, as could the introduction of Ricky Lambert who, you never know, could have popped up with an all important equalising goal. Regardless with all things considered, I think Hodgson judged his squad well and picked in his opinion, the best XI he could possibly have chosen. Although I’m in full agreement bar the inclusion of Danny Welbeck, it will be interesting to see whether Hodgson does choose to re-integrate Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain following his injury after his strong performance against Ecuador and consequently whether either Welbeck, Rooney or Sterling find their place in the starting XI under pressure. We’ll have to wait and see.
Aside from those mentioned above, other excuses I’ve heard and read focus mainly on the weather/pitch conditions and leave little room for analysis. Ultimately, I do think England were genuinely unlucky against Italy and on another day, who knows? Maybe Raheem Sterling’s long range effort after four minutes could have been that little bit more to the left and beat stand-in keeper Sirigu? Maybe Leighton Baines’ free kick could have crept in past Sirigu left hand post? Maybe we could have just got that little bit of luck we always seem to miss out on in the World Cup? Who knows. Either way, there’s no point crying over spilt milk or in this case, lost points.
As long as Hodgson and his squad regroup and maintain the pre-tournament optimism, there is really no reason why England can’t qualify from Group D. Yes, Uruguay have the likes of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. But we have Ricky Lambert. Advantage us I say? Joking aside, in a like for like comparison I really do think Uruguay can be exploited defensively. If we can attack in the manner we did against Italy against a much weaker back four than that of the Italians, goals will hopefully come thick and fast. And although England will have to keep it tight at the back with a solid defensive performance to restrict the likes of Cavani, Forlan and Suarez, one would hope we’d have enough to walk away with three points and put ourselves in the driving seat for qualification out of what Greg Dyke’s hand gesture would suggest, is a very, very difficult Group D.