A lot of contrast in England’s display against Italy yesterday from what we saw them display four years back against the USA in the 2010 FIFA World Cup opener. Lacking any sort of expectation and coming into the tournament with reduced pressure, Hodgson’s team consisted of youngsters rather than favouring the tried & tested. It was England’s second youngest ever World Cup squad, and some of the players on show clearly understood what it meant to turn out for your country at a tournament as big as this.
There were positives in England’s starting XI as well, with in-form Raheem Sterling given the nod and Hodgson showing immense faith in the teenager, shifting his squad around just so that the Liverpool talent can fit in to the No.10 role. Rooney was thus forced wide. It was a welcome change from Hodgson, and England coaches in general, who have developed a reputation of favouring pragmatism over bold moves. Welbeck’s inclusion ahead of Lallana was brought into question, but the Manchester United man was arguably one of England’s better performer, explosive in the first half and justifying his place.
Although Italy did control a lot of the ball, it wasn’t all down to their superiority. Hodgson got his tactics right, deliberately sitting back and making their defensive third as compact as possible with all men behind the ball replicating Italy’s approach. England were more than content with allowing possession with the Italians as long as the compactness wasn’t compromised. They knew when they would eventually get the ball back, the likes of Sterling, Sturridge & Welbeck could beat their man pace for pace and hit them quick on the counter. England’s goal was created through such a move as well. A quick turn and acceleration from Sterling allowed him to move forward and a rare lapse of concentration from an otherwise solid Darmian put Rooney through, his first real contribution to the game with Sturridge finishing it. Welbeck too was able to run at the defenders, creating a couple of chances. Both Sterling & Welbeck championed this youthful England approach and positivity.
They weren’t the only ones though, Barkley’s inclusion certainly added another dimension while Lallana came on later to add some unpredictability to the side. But while the youth impressed on the night, it was England’s age old problem of their more established stars just quite not turning up as they should be.
The notable issue lied with Wayne Rooney. To be fair, he was played out of position but for someone whose been marketed as England’s main man, you’d think a slight shift to the left wouldn’t hurt him as much. The lack of versatility in Rooney is quite staggering, and although he assisted the goal, he had a quite awful game as has been a custom with the striker at big tournaments since Euro 2004.
Leighton Baines came under some criticism for his performance as he was turned by Candreva quite easily a couple of times. The Lazio man alongwith Torino’s Darmian were finding a lot of joy down the right-hand side, but rather than leveling criticism Baines’ way, i’d once again look at Wayne Rooney for failing to track back and assist Baines in a defensive capacity. Faced against a two on one onslaught on his side, there was little Baines could do with the decisive goal also being created from that end.
Another one of the established players who should be criticised is captain Steven Gerrard. His influence on the game was lacking, and his ability to create from deep was non-existent. In a match where he was being compared to Andrea Pirlo, Steven Gerrard easily lost that battle. Gerrard’s tendency to sit deep acted negatively in combining with the rest of the explosive side, meaning that his long balls should be making up for it but the Liverpool captain was lacking in this regard as well.
Heading back to the positives, it was a refreshing change to see the type of football on display by Hodgson’s side. A lot was said about the weather and the humidity in Manaus, but that didn’t stop England from playing a fast paced game (compared to what we’ve seen in the past). The type of play was reminiscent of Liverpool’s successful campaign, and understandably so with 50% of the outfield made up with players of the Merseyside club.
While the football was good, the team selection alright, the substitutions were questionable. It was always unlikely, but Hodgson would have received wide appreciation if he had it in him to withdraw Rooney but the big name of the 300,000 pound week man left him on the pitch. Taking off Gerrard too could have been a bold move, but instead Hodgson took their younger partners off in Henderson & Welbeck (the latter especially having a good game).
But with England 2-1 down and chasing the game with just the last quarter of so left, it was evident Italy were more than capable of their own compact set-up and ability to see the game out. Plan B was needed, a more familiar English plan. Passing it through Italy wasn’t working, neither would it ever so a cross or two in the box might have been an option. And here’s where Hodgson made his biggest mistake on the night.
It was a game begging for Lambert to come on. Rooney still stayed on, Sturridge was withrdrawn and on came…Adam Lallana. England were already equipped with ball-playing footballers, but a man to target with a pump in the box, albeit a last resort, seemed the obvious thing to do. His decision making bewildered many, and that actually could have been the game decider. It almost seemed like a move that resorted England to the loss.
So a lot of positives for Hodgson to take, but that will be of little help at the World Cup. Had this been a 38 game club season, you could afford to take positives from losses, but with one-third of the group stage done and England with nothing to show for it, positives will do little more than providing an excuse for an early exit. Results are needed now. Credit to Hodgson for surpassing the little expectations that were there, but a few alterations would have made his start & stint almost perfect.
This article was written by Sami Faizullah. Editor-in-chief of outsideoftheboot.com