WEMBLEY STADIUM, LONDON—At times it had all the excitement and endeavour of a glorified training exercise, but isn’t that ultimately all international friendlies really are?
Supporters at home forced to sit through a drab 90 minutes, during which England forced a handful of smart saves from goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel without ever really getting pulses racing, will have understandably struggled to resist the urge to despair at what they might be forced to witness in Brazil.
Yet the performance and (especially) the scoreline against Denmark on Wednesday was always going to be somewhat secondary, even if head coach Roy Hodgson admitted afterwards that winning 1-0 thanks to Daniel Sturridge’s late header was “the icing on the cake.”
The priority was always that Hodgson learned something from the contest, the last international friendly before he picks his preliminary 30-man squad for the Three Lions’ latest assault on a World Cup.
In that respect, there was enough on the pitch to suggest that something was gained from this otherwise forgettable encounter. Whether those observations and realisations convinced Hodgson he is on the right path, or warned him to change course, however, is something only time will tell.
Faced with the choice of experimenting with either his system or his personnel at Wembley (changing both would only muddle what could be learned), Hodgson chose the former—perhaps contrary to the expectations and assumptions of many.
There were some new faces, mainly from Liverpool, in the likes of Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling, but in the main it was Hodgson’s 4-3-3 that was the real object on trial, as he moved back to it from the 4-2-3-1 he had utilised to qualify for Brazil’s festivities.
Removing the goalkeeper from the equation, Hodgson’s back five for Brazil appears relatively settled; the Gary Cahill-Phil Jagielka partnership preferred when fit, the two full-backs given licence to push forward, and Steven Gerrard in the holding role he was settled into so well at Liverpool this season.
Beyond that, however, Hodgson is open to experimentation with less than 100 days until the World Cup begins.
On Wednesday, Jack Wilshere and Henderson started on the left and right of central midfield, with Sterling further forward on the right wing, Sturridge on the left, and Wayne Rooney as the central striker. But that changed almost immediately, with the five players rotating almost at will; occasionally Henderson was the furthest player forward, while Rooney often went wide and Sterling frequently dropped deep.
The system, in many ways clearly inspired by Brendan Rodgers’ impressive work at Liverpool (and utilising some of the same personnel), was seemingly designed to confuse tracking opponents, to push and probe and cause errors of organisation and judgement (“whose man is that?”, “who’s tracking him?”) that could be exploited.
Unfortunately, and as Hodgson acknowledged afterwards, in the first half England lacked the tempo and cutting edge to really execute such a strategy (although arguably that was always going to be hard against a Denmark side clearly lacking in any sort of motivation or incentive), despite both Sturridge and Sterling going close on occasions.
There also appeared to be some frailties to the system, with England’s defence looking remarkably exposed on more than one occasion when Denmark won the ball quickly in midfield with both Henderson and Wilshere caught further forward.
Denmark head coach Morten Olsen—whose “Good luck at the World Cup, you’ll need it!” sign-off will doubtless make many of Thursday’s papers—admitted afterwards to reporters that his side were limited by injuries and the fact the domestic season is just two games old.
If that had not been the case, however, Olsen believed Denmark would have been able to exploit England’s tactics and win the game.
“If [injured Spurs playmaker] Christian Eriksen had played today then I think we could have won, because we had the space to play in… It would have been a completely [different] game,” Olsen lamented. “But we did not have the players to make the most of it.”
Could one player really have made that much of a difference?
“One player can decide, sure—because he can make the others around him better.”
If that is true, then Hodgson would dearly love to uncover that sort of player for his own use as soon as possible. There are such candidates within his squad—Rooney, of course, along with the likes of Sterling and Ross Barkley—but on Wednesday it was Adam Lallana who provided England with an extra drive and guile, after replacing Wilshere just before the hour mark.
Slotting in where the Arsenal man had been before, Lallana’s first real involvement included a smart Cruyff turn that gave him vital space in the box; a sign of what was to come in a consistently clever performance that culminated in a deserved assist for Sturridge’s winner.
“The young players brought an energy, a determination to get beyond a packed Danish defence in the second half,” Hodgson said, with Lallana more to thank for that than anyone.
“He was very, very good.
“We put a lot of young players in there tonight who haven’t played a lot of times for England, and all of them will feel they have improved their chances [of going to Brazil].”
Whether Hodgson’s fluid attacking system will make the trip too remains to be seen. It seemed to hint at much promise, especially if more of the players involved are playing at the level Lallana managed to find, but Olsen’s comments offered evidence to support the underlying sense that it would leave England exposed defensively against better and more motivated opposition, something Hodgson will surely be loath to see when the competitive action kicks off.
In theory, the system will tire out the opposition more quickly, both physically and mentally, as they are forced to track and chase every run and changing of position.
With England due to face Italy in tropical Manaus in the first group game that might be a real advantage—although the worry of course is that it is the English that tend to wilt quickest in the heat, and such a labour-intensive strategy might only accelerate that process.
Lallana enhanced his chances of facing that Amazonian climate with his performance, but beyond him it was Hodgson’s choices that gave the greater clues about the current pecking order. After Ashley Cole and debutant Luke Shaw fared about equally well (Cole was perhaps more impressive, but he was getting his 107th taste of international football, not his first) Hodgson was giving nothing away about his thoughts at left-back—”There’s a lot of water to pass under the bridge between now and May”—and little more elsewhere.
Given that, we can only make educated guesses based on his team selection and substitutions. They would seem to suggest both Henderson (whose club understanding with Gerrard, a guaranteed starter against Italy, is a real point in his favour) and Sterling are at the forefront of his thoughts, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is also firmly back in the fold after injury kept him out late last year.
Indeed, the entire starting XI can be confident of at least being part of Hodgson’s preliminary 30 (injuries permitting), while the rest still have work to do. Andros Townsend can seemingly not rest on his qualifying-goal laurels with other pacy wingers performing so well, while Henderson’s emergence—along with Hodgson’s continued faith in Wilshere—is surely bad news for Tom Cleverley (but great news for those who signed that petition).
Amid all the hoopla at left-back, a more interesting subplot might actually be at right-back, where Phil Jones and Chris Smalling’s versatility perhaps might convince Hodgson to leave one of Glen Johnson and Kyle Walker at home later this year.
With the evidence, as a recent Daily Telegraph article underlined, suggesting that it is more beneficial to have a greater number of attacking options in a final 23-man squad, that would be one way to facilitate such a setup.
Of those players mentioned above, it is difficult to avoid noticing that most of them are under 25, still perhaps to reach their footballing “peak.”
When this was pointed out to him, Hodgson admitted that England might end up travelling to South America with its youngest squad in decades.
“I couldn’t deny [that] logic,” Hodgson acknowledged. “There have been a lot of young players. I think it’s probably obvious that we are looking in that direction—but I don’t feel under any obligation.”
Nevertheless, those words may strike a worrying cord with Michael Carrick and Frank Lampard, who were both unused substitutes on Wednesday. It would not be unreasonable for Hodgson to decide he already knows everything he needs to about those two players; whether that is a good thing for their tournament hopes or not, however, is harder to be sure of.
The focus on, and pride in, young players points to a more overarching element of Hodgson’s ongoing project.
The fans, aided and abetted by the media, are naturally focusing on the World Cup as the be-all and end-all of the national side’s ambitions, yet Hodgson has already been given assurances from the Football Association that he will lead England to the 2016 European Championships, regardless of how England fare in Brazil.
That hints at less short-term planning that the national team is used to, along with lower expectations. It hints, but only hints, that Hodgson may have more freedom than his predecessors to treat the World Cup as a building block towards future tournaments.
As Olsen noted, when asked for his opinion on England’s chances this summer:
“Well, it is a young team with a lot of quickness, although you did not see it today because there was no space.
“I think it is promising for the future. For the World Cup I don’t know. I think it is all about the form of the day. If you perform as an individual and a team, you have a chance against everybody.”
England were not deeply impressive on Wednesday, not by any means, but the win was deserved and—especially after successive home defeats in prior friendlies—something to build on as the stakes begin to rise.
The players now have over two months to audition for their place with their Premier League performances. That Sterling and Henderson could force their way into the reckoning on the back of such displays suggests the door is still not shut for any player, surely something that will encourage strong finishes to the season.
Then, when the preliminary squad is announced, Hodgson will have his charges for nearly a month before the start of the tournament to really work on the tactical setup he has in mind.
Renowned from his club days as someone who gets his players organised and of one mind on the training ground, that might be when we see a coherent tactical system start to emerge—one only hinted at on occasions against Denmark.
“There’s a lot of football still to be played and games to be watched,” as Hodgson said. “We’ve got lots of options.
“We’ve got a lot of time and opportunities, especially in the four to five weeks before the tournament, to decide how best they will gel together.”