Wayne Rooney presents a problem to any manager, given he seems insistent these days on playing like an old-fashioned second–striker. Although he has played as the out-and-out centre-forward with some success, his waning pace may preclude him from that role, and his increasing reluctance to pay deep or wide means that he has to play in a front two.
Given England have Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck (who has a reputation as a poor finisher but had a chance conversion rate of 25% last season) it means Roy Hodgson can effectively perm two from three, with the option of moving Rooney or Welbeck deeper or wider if need be.
While much of the criticism of Rooney recently perhaps ignores how effective he is at his best, it equally can’t be denied that the prospect of Welbeck and Sturridge together - two quick, mobile modern forwards – is enticing.
The problem of playing a front two is what to do with the midfield. Against Norway on Wednesday, Hodgson began with a 4-4-2 with a flat bank in midfield, before switching to a diamond late on. He had hinted at playing with a flat four in Basel, but instead Hodgson gambled with a diamond. That, at the moment, seems to get the best out of Raheem Sterling, although against quicker midfielders than Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami, he may find himself running into traffic, and Jordan Henderson and Fabian Delph both thrived as the carrileros on the outsider of the diamond. Henderson was typically disciplined and industrious, while Delph, after a wild opening in which he was booked for a second dangerous lunge in the first ten minutes, was tidy and controlled, completing 97% of his passes, according to Whoscored.com.
The risk was that, with nobody in front of them, Switzerland’s full-backs, Stephane Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodriguez, surged forwards , but Welbeck in particular did a fine job of pulling wide to occupy Rodriguez, and Switzerland, anyway, seemed strangely flat. Hodgson, perhaps, as the former manager of Switzerland, had judged the psychology correctly and realised the Switzerland, 11 places above England in the world rankings though they are, would not attack England. The diamond worked, and it may even be the best way for England to play, but it will not be universally applicable.
READ: 5 Things We Learned From Switzerland 0-2 England
The other problem with the diamond is that there is no natural anchor. Wilshere performed the role reasonably well but he wasn’t comfortable. He may learn how to play it, and he hasn’t ben in great form of late anyway, but his positional sense was questionable. He almost never dropped in between the two centre-backs to create passing options, nor did he advance to offer a passing angle. Perhaps it was simply that he was reluctant to let Haris Seferovic the Switzerland centre-forward, get beyond him, understandably favouring caution, but the problem was that England often became flat across the back, meaning they either had to go long, or that Sterling had to drop deep, which in turn disrupted the structure higher up the pitch.
THE BACK FOUR
Wilshere aside, the other concern was the occasional skittishness of the back four. They were better than they were in the World Cup – something for which the absence of the ball-watching Phil Jagielka may be partly responsible – but the channel between Leighton Baines and Phil Jones remained a vulnerability. It was into that area that Seferovic made the run when Xherdan Shaqiri laid him in after 34 minutes, drawing the fine save from Joe Hart while it was that area that was epoxsed again when Gary Cahill made his clearance off the line from Josip Drnic in the second – albeit that the substitute was just offside. Time and familiarity may strengthen that, but it is a worry.
After all the criticism Hodgson has had to endure, this was vindication. To protest that Switzerland were poor – which they were – is true, but equally England made them look poor, the pace of Sterling in particular meaning that the Inler-Behrami axis was never able to function, which in turn deprived the front four of meaningful possession. This was a finely judged performance that got the deserved result. There were also hugely positive signs for the future in the way England counter-attacked; their pace upfront means that has to be the style in the future (although chances to practise that in a weak qualifying group will be limited).
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