WEMBLEY STADUM, LONDON — A few answers, but even more questions for England. Business as usual, then.
While England undoubtedly gained enough from their 3-0 friendly victory over Peru on Friday to make the whole venture worthwhile, it was hard to escape the feeling that the conundrums it raised for Roy Hodgson were far bigger than those it went some way toward resolving.
On the plus side, the fluid 4-3-3 system Hodgson employed—clearly with a nod to Brazil—seemed to work reasonably effectively, especially in midfield, albeit against limited opposition.
Among the negatives, the importance of Steven Gerrard to the functioning of the team was drawn into sharper contrast—it was no coincidence he was the first home player to be substituted—while the role of Wayne Rooney is only likely to become a bigger talking point as the World Cup gets closer.
It seems reasonable to suspect that at least seven of the 11 players Hodgson chose to start with at Wembley on Friday will also start against Italy in Manaus in two weeks’ time, with Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana and Danny Welbeck all perhaps with a little bit left to do (if this was an audition, however, then they probably all passed with various degrees of distinction).
It may just be that Rooney is the other player yet to nail down his place. Hodgson said before the game that he would not be afraid to drop England’s most high-profile player, and it is arguable that this game drew him nearer to that unwelcome decision.
Rooney was England’s least effective and influential player on the night, playing in a system that does not necessarily seem suited to his particular gifts. With the front line interchanging regularly, Rooney struggled to make an impression in the final third, catching the eye more for his defensive contributions. As if it needs saying, that is not what he is in the team for.
Perhaps fitness is actually the issue; after all, Rooney has not played a competitive game for a month. After Gerrard, he was the second player substituted for the home side.
“We took him off tonight because him, and Gerrard, are important members of our squad. We are not blessed with many senior players,” Hodgson insisted to reporters.
“We think we know where he is [with his preparation], how is fitness is being maintained. [His] commitment and attitude is first class, even in a game of this nature. He’s got two weeks to continue that.
“I have no need to consider which strikers I will play against Italy [yet].”
Nevertheless, Hodgson will surely pause for thought when he reviews this game. The fluid nature of his attack had its moments, but it also exhibited some flaws.
Daniel Sturridge, for example, may have provided the game’s one moment of attacking class to break the deadlock, but his lax attitude to tracking back during his spells on either wing would have seen a more composed player than Jean Deza (Peru’s best player on the night) equalise shortly before half-time.
Welbeck, whose inclusion was doubted by some, is far better in that respect, yet struggles to be as incisive as the Liverpool striker when leading the line. And then there was Rooney, stuck somewhere in the middle. Taking this game in isolation, surely Raheem Sterling—if only for pace—would have offered more.
If England’s attack had its problems, then the midfield arrangement was more convincing. Henderson settled in brilliantly to a central role he had not occupied for England before, with Gerrard moving around behind him and Lallana given licence to join the attack from the right when appropriate.
With Henderson marshalling the centre, Gerrard could roam around in search of the ball, dictating the tempo of the match as he has done for Liverpool all season and putting out fires on the defensive end. There is no one else in the squad with the ability to do what he does for England; without him, one wonders if the particular system used against Peru would fall apart.
It was an unbalanced formation, but it was one that worked in its own way. With Leighton Baines stretching his legs to offer an outlet down the left—giving a width that Gerrard was not providing to the same extent as Lallana on the other side—there was a cohesion and variety to England’s style that was encouraging to watch.
It was not perfect, but it was a long way from the stunted, rigid setups England have gone into World Cups with in the past.
Hodgson added: “Peru haven’t figured strongly in our preparations. It’s a game where we’ve been purely and utterly focused on Brazil.
“Everything was based around our shape, the way we were going to play and what we wanted to do.”
He added that Peru had provided the challenge he wanted, putting men behind the ball and trying to hit on the counter in an approach that Hodgson anticipates England will come up against frequently if they progress far in South America.
It's teams that “take advantage of you trying to take the initiative,” as Hodgson put it, although a severely weakened Peru side is a world away from a motivated Uruguay side in a World Cup group game.
“You have to judge it for what it is, a friendly,” Peru’s coach, Pablo Bengoechea, pointed out. “The real serious stuff starts in two weeks’ time.
“I don’t know what Hodgson asked of his team, but I imagine he is reasonably satisfied.”
It was the measured response of a man with no investment in England’s outcome (well, not quite—as a former Uruguay international himself, Bengoechea said Group D is a “50-50” proposition). There were positives to take, but it was not the stage for sweeping judgements.
“I think the most important things were one, to come through injury-scathed, and two, get a victory,” Hodgson said. “The finest point of the evening was the crowd, the atmosphere. What a send-off. What a tremendous vote of confidence from the British footballing public.”
After making mention of that show of jingoism, Hodgson was then challenged on his own demeanour—how he seems to remain measured both when dealing with the press and when in the dugout.
The response was illuminating.
“Football coaches don’t win games on the touchline,” he said. “They win it with what they do in training.”
Hodgson has always operated as such. He has two weeks to put that belief into practice. One way or another, Rooney is surely going to be at the forefront of his thoughts.
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