International football has created the just-made-up phenomenon of the "talent gap," something Gareth Bale's performance against Iceland demonstrated perfectly. Bale was so much better than anyone in red or blue that it became comical.
At one point in the first half, receiving the ball facing his own goal in the left-back position, he spun and accelerated between defenders, gliding diagonally across the pitch with grace before hitting a perfect 30-yard pass to someone much less good. His assists were impressive and his goal, when it eventually and inevitably came, was like the best player on the school playground running from his own half just because he could.
He was far too good for the game, and no leagues or wage structures can stop this entertaining oddity from occurring.
It happens in reverse, of course. Football fans made a point of reading Spain's bench aloud before every game in their 2010 World Cup-winning tournament in South Africa. Cesc Fabregas, David Silva, Juan Mata and so on.
But for all the talent to choose from, Spain had virtually no options at all at left-back. They took only one recognised left-sided defender to the tournament, their oldest squad member, 32-year-old Joan Capdevila. Capdevila was a regular fixture of the team and played in the final. He was reliable, but compared to the rest of the team's speed and technical ability, he didn't come close.
England have had their own talent gaps in the past—the left midfield role was in constant debate in the early 2000s, to the point where Football Focus once did a feature on Seth Johnson: The answer to England's left-sided woes? He was not.
Today, however, international football's funny ways have thrown up a little irony. Since Michael Owen's peak, England have been searching for a strike partner for their special attacking talent, Wayne Rooney. Finally Daniel Sturridge has stepped forward, but unfortunately at a time when playing two strikers has faded out of fashion in international football and is literally frowned upon – even England have caught on to this trend, albeit a full World Cup later than the rest.
The truth is that Hodgson cannot even try 4-4-2 as it provoked such disdain in Euro 2012 and would be ridiculed on Gary Lineker's Twitter. The manager is therefore left with a choice of 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 (which becomes 4-5-1-ish when defending).
The two in midfield in a 4-2-3-1 would seem a bit lightweight against Italy, whose narrow lineup plays through Andrea Pirlo, and likewise against any good side—Spain, Germany, Brazil—England would barely touch the ball. A 4-3-3 is most likely, as Hodgson tested against Denmark. In this system, there is room for only one striker. Sturridge is England's best striker this season based on his goal per minute ratio and last week was reported second in Europe —better even than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and behind only Sergio Aguero.
During and after the Denmark game, commentators, pundits and just about everyone agreed that Sturridge shouldn't play on the wing; he has simply become too much of a goalscoring threat to be wasted in a wide area. The problem was noted, but no one cared to offer a solution.
Andy Townsend said Sturridge needed to be central, but he didn't explain how that would work around Rooney. All the current debates have missed this point. If 4-3-3 is the system, and Sturridge plays up front, then Hodgson's greatest dilemma is not who to bring as reserve left-back or whether to play Chris Smalling ever again, ever. It is figuring out where Rooney fits in.
The days of the traditional No. 10 in the hole picking passes are over for now. It is why Wesley Sneijder's career has derailed, why players like Mesut Ozil go missing in games and why Jose Mourinho off-loaded Juan Mata.
The central creative role is not a luxury second striker anymore but the most attacking midfielder in a three. Brendan Rodgers calls it the No. 8 position, and it is a role that Adam Lallana, Ross Barkley and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain appear more suited to than Rooney.
Perhaps Rooney is irreplaceable, if not in goalscoring terms then in leadership and experience and the array of qualities he brings. But practically speaking, in a 4-3-3 with England's best player for each position selected, there is a clear argument to say that Rooney doesn't warrant inclusion in the first 11.
Spain are happy to leave great talents on the bench and play quite mediocre ones: round pegs in round holes. Hodgson could do worse than follow Spain's example.
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