England vs. Italy: 6 Things We Learned

Rob Pollard@@RobPollard_Featured ColumnistJune 15, 2014

England vs. Italy: 6 Things We Learned

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    Buoyed by Uruguay's surprise defeat to Costa Rica earlier in the day, England went into their match with Italy in Manaus in high spirits; however, the disappointment was palpable after a 2-1 defeat.

    Despite the result, though, they can take plenty of positives from the game after a performance full of attacking intent.

    Claudio Marchisio opened the scoring with a fine strike, but England hit back almost immediately through Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge. Mario Balotelli's header from an Antonio Candreva cross won it for the Italians, who are now in a strong position to qualify.

    It was an entertaining match that was up to the quality on display since Thursday's opener. The 2010 World Cup may have been dull, but the early signs in Brazil suggest this one will prove to be a massive improvement in excitement.

    England now face a crucial second-group game against Uruguay on Thursday. A win in Sao Paulo would see them in with a real chance of qualifying for the round of 16 going into their match with Costa Rica five days later; a defeat would be disastrous.

    Here are six things we learned from England's narrow loss in Manaus.

1. Playing Rooney out of Position Is a Mistake

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    Wayne Rooney is potentially England's best player. When he is fit and in form, no one in Roy Hodgson's squad can match his ability. He's quick, strong and technically gifted; he can produce moments of magic from very little and is closing in on his country's goalscoring record. His range of attributes is unparalleled in England's set-up.

    Right now, though, he's struggling to produce; he's too often expending energy in the wrong areas and misfiring in the final third. It remains Hodgson's most pressing concern.

    It seems odd, then, for the England manager to select Rooney on the left, a position he's somewhat unfamiliar with and one where his goal threat is significantly reduced. Hodgson would surely be better trying to get the best out of his star man by playing him where he is most dangerous: centrally with a remit to score goals.

    The British media, who have a long history of derailing their own side's preparations for major tournaments, have been sharpening the knives and pointing them in Rooney's direction for weeks, long before a ball in this tournament had been kicked. It's an absurd situation that has led to an unhelpful witch hunt.

    But Hodgson needs to be brave. Either play Rooney in his best position or drop him from the starting lineup altogether.

2. Sterling Was England's Best Player

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    Raheem Sterling was undoubtedly England's Man of the Match. He was a constant threat to the Italian defence, and his pace and trickery were their undoing time and again. This is a man with a big future.

    Right from the start of the game, his ability was clear. A shot from outside the area went close, and England responded, controlling the opening few minutes as they started very much on the front foot.

    He drops deep to find space before turning and running purposefully at the opposition, causing panic and setting England off on an attack. However, it isn't just pace and youthful exuberance that make Sterling such a threat; his ability on the ball is remarkably accomplished for a 19-year-old. His pass to Rooney in the buildup to England's opening goal was sublime and showed his maturity.

    He brings the kind of positivity that England have lacked for years, and he has guaranteed his place in the starting XI going into the next match.

    Hodgson's press conf underway. England manager says Sturridge "exceptional" and Sterling "as bright as we hoped he could be"

    — Daniel Taylor (@DTguardian) June 15, 2014

3. Italy Showed Their Class

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    The days when Italy would field 11 world-class players may be over for the moment, but their current crop still has plenty of quality. Italy weren't at their best against England, but their ability to keep the ball and squeeze a victory out of a game they failed to ever really control suggests they are a threat at this World Cup.

    The midfield trio of Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi and Marco Verratti are technically excellent, and in Mario Balotelli they have a match-winner and one of the finest forwards on the planet. The team's excellent mix of style and substance could lead them into the latter stages of the tournament.

4. Balotelli Was Deservedly Man of the Match

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    He has his critics in England after an oft-baffling spell at Manchester City, but Balotelli, Italy's match-winner in Manaus, is one of the most naturally gifted players in world football.

    Very few possess what he has: strength, pace, work-rate, finishing ability and outrageous technical ability. If he can finally mature and consistently show what he's capable of—and there are signs of that happening—he will go on to be one of the best we've seen in recent times.

    Excellent with his back to goal and with enough pace to cause problems in behind, he dispatched his one chance with ruthless efficiency. He's Italy's star man.

5. This Is the Most Exciting England Team in Years

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    The result may have been disappointing, but England's approach to the game certainly wasn't. Whereas England sides of the recent past have been weighed down by unrealistic expectations, producing a brand of football capable of sending even the most interested of observers to sleep, this one is full of excitement and ingenuity, with an abundance of pace and class in forward areas.

    Sturridge is confident and leading the line well. He is capable of dropping deep or playing on the last man, with his movement making him difficult to mark. Sterling is fearless and incredibly talented, while Danny Welbeck continues to confound his critics with assured and capable displays.

    And, for once, England have plenty of options. Ross Barkley looks like a world-beater in the making who is never overawed despite his relative inexperience, and Adam Lallana brings trickery and the kind of quick feet that can open up a tight game.

    They are nowhere near the finished article, but Hodgson's faith in youth should be applauded. England are, at the very least, enjoyable to watch, and it's been a while since that's been the case.

6. England's Fitness Called into Question

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    One side note to emerge from an absorbing contest was the amount of England players suffering from cramps. The conditions were difficult, with temperatures in Manaus reaching close to 30 degrees Celsius, but it was strange and worrying for Hodgson that his players appeared to suffer far more than the Italians.

    It's something that needs to be addressed quickly.