The assumption had been that if Wayne Rooney was asked to play wide on the left it would be because England were playing a 4-3-3. In a 4-2-3-1, it was assumed, he would play behind Daniel Sturridge. But Roy Hodgson instead used Raheem Sterling in a central position, and he excelled there, looking composed at home from the moment he cracked a shot into the side-netting in the fourth minute. England’s great strength going forward is their pace, and there were signs of the sort of intermovement that could take best advantage of that. It’s easy, because of his pace, to assume that Sterling is primarily a threat because of his speed, but he can also be a measured and intelligent footballer, as he showed with the pass that released Rooney to cross for Sturridge to score the England equaliser. Sturridge himself had a good night, not just with the goal but in the way he constantly moved across the forward line, creating space.
It’s mystifying why Rooney has become so averse to playing on the left: he was excelled in playing there at times for Manchester United in 2007-08, when Sir Alex Ferguson noted how adept he was at attacking on a diagonal. In the first half, though, Rooney had shown few signs of relishing his role on the left before sending in a perfect cross for Sturridge. He and Sterling switched at times, and the result was that Leighton Baines was repeatedly exposed, as he was five minutes into the second half as Antonio Candreva was given space to cross for Mario Balotelli to score with a simple back-post header. Isolated as he was, Baines didn’t cover himself in glory, buying a dummy far too readily. There were other occasions when Rooney got the ball in central areas, looked left for somebody to pass to, then realised that was his role and had to check back. He may grow into the position and the experiment shouldn’t necessarily be abandoned, but it wasn’t an unqualified success.
The great advantage of fielding Steven Gerrard at the back of midfield is his range of passing. Although Italy had by far the bulk of possession, England looked consistently dangerous on the counter-attack, largely because of the speed with which Gerrard released the ball and his capacity to play long, accurate passes into space. The doubt about him in the role, though, is his defensive positioning. At times England left space in front of Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka, understandably playing very deep, which on two occasions gave Balotelli space to turn and attempt a shot. It would be unfair to blame just him for how open England were, but a more natural holder might have helped plug some of the gaps.
BANKS OF FOUR
Roy Hodgson has been much derided for always playing 4-4-2 – something that simply isn’t true as anybody watching England over the past two years would know. Hodgson hasn’t helped himself in that regard by persistently insisting formations don’t exist, but when he insisted that Borussia Dortmund play a 4-4-2. What he seems to have meant by that was that, out of possession, Dortmund drop back to two banks of four as soon as they can, that being still the shape that, in a zonal system, best denies space to the opposition. England, in their 4-2-3-1, tried to do that, but the problem was always that space on the left, repeatedly leaving a pocket of space that Candreva was all too adept at exploiting.
There was much to encourage England. They played with verve and brio but Danny Welbeck and Rooney missed the target with fine chances, Salvatore Sirigu made three fine saves and they were denied two decent shouts for penalties – although Italy did hit the woodwork twice. Going forward, they were unpredictable and imaginative. The problems were defensive, particularly on the left and it may be that 4-2-3-1, with these personnel, is simply too attacking against high-class opposition. A possible option would be to pull back the central player in the attacking midfield trident and play a 4-3-3 with perhaps Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Jack Wilshere pushing forwards to join a front three – which would again mean Rooney starting on the left, but with less defensive responsibility.
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