There is always a strange double-think that goes on where England are concerned, as if the national side is somehow not just a football team but also a barometer of the moral health of the nation.
They are expected not merely to win matches, but to do so in a style that is fitting with the mothers of the modern game—a strange combination of nostalgic arrogance and self-delusion which is detrimental to their chances of success. They are never treated as a club side would be.
When Chelsea went to Manchester City in the Premier League earlier this season, sat men behind the ball and won the game 1-0, it was hailed as a tactical master-class from Jose Mourinho, a perfect example of counter-attacking football.
When Fabio Capello, in what turned out to be his second-last game in charge, led England to a 1-0 win over Spain, the world and European champions, the reaction was more mixed. Some praised his pragmatism, but just as many seemed appalled that England should have sunk to such knavish tricks as defending.
That’s one of the reasons why the lack of expectation around England could be a positive.
If people really have accepted that this is a limited squad, then they will presumably also accept a tactical approach that acknowledges those limitations and looks to play to their strengths, perhaps the greatest of which is the pace of the forward players.
There still seems, weirdly, to be a perception that counter-attacking football is negative football, that there is something unseemly about looking to draw the opposition out and hit the space behind them. But when Germany played like that in the 2010 World Cup, they were praised for the dynamism of their approach.
That’s how England must play, certainly against Italy and Uruguay: sit deep—neither Gary Cahill nor Phil Jagielka is especially quick—absorb pressure and then look to use the long-passing ability of Steven Gerrard to release a rapid forward line.
How that forward-line should be composed is another issue. Against Peru, Roy Hodgson fielded Wayne Rooney behind Daniel Sturridge, with Danny Welbeck to the left and Adam Lallana to the right.
It seems probable that against Ecuador on Wednesday night and against better sides in the World Cup, though, he will deploy an extra midfielder and switch to 4-3-3.
That, however, creates issues about the positioning of Wayne Rooney. Sturridge, fairly evidently, is the man in form, following up his 22 Premier League goals last season with an inspired effort against Peru.
But if he plays centrally and England use a 4-3-3, that means either Raheem Sterling, Lallana or Welbeck playing on one flank, with Rooney on the other, or leaving out the former Everton man altogether.
Rooney has made it clear in the past that he prefers playing centrally, but it may be that if he is to be accommodated, he has to play wide.
As Hodgson pointed out at a press-conference in Miami, as Henry Winter of the Daily Telegraph reported, he has done that before for Manchester United, and there is no reason why he shouldn’t for his country.
I look at the players at my disposal and decide what they need and what we need. Then I expect them to do it.
Wayne can play in several positions and he’ll play in a position which we think will suit the team and which he is capable of playing.
I think Wayne’s a very useful player in the sense you don’t have to pin him down and say this is the only position he can play. He can play centre-forward, behind the centre-forward and wide.
Against Denmark in March, Rooney was used in a narrow role, playing initially just to the left of Sturridge, with Sterling wide right, although occasionally the skew was switched, with Sterling going wide left and Rooney narrow right.
There were glimmers then of an understanding, although it was clearly something that needed further practice.
And Hodgson is right to expect his players to try to adapt as required. International football has a tendency to generate sacred cows, the celebrity players who must be accommodated at all costs—think of David Beckham in his ill-conceived “quarterback role” in the defeat to Northern Ireland in 2005.
For years England persisted with the doomed Frank Lampard-Steven Gerrard central midfield because no coach was prepared to drop one or the other (or change shape to a 4-3-3 that would have ousted Michael Owen).
Hodgson, happily, seems prepared to make tough decisions. He is always a manager who has believed in the importance of the team unit over the individual, in pragmatism over sentimentality.
And if that means Rooney playing on the left or not at all, so be it.
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