England's 2014 FIFA World Cup got off to a losing start in Manaus on Saturday evening, as they went down 2-1 to Italy in Group D.
Daniel Sturridge cancelled out Claudio Marchisio's opening goal almost instantly, but Mario Balotelli scored a header just into the second half, a second deficit from which Roy Hodgson's men could not recover.
While the performance was decent, verging on good at times, from England, there will be frustrations that they perhaps didn't push on as much as they could have done to take something from the game, as well as a number of concerns throughout the team which must be addressed before the crucial fixture against Uruguay.
Defending the Flanks
England were penned back frequently in the first half by the runs down the flanks from Marchisio and, in particular, Antonio Candreva. The right-sided player was given far, far too much time and space—and frequency of repeating the move—to dart beyond Leighton Baines at right-back, looking to cross or pull the ball back into space.
Wayne Rooney would or could not track back to double up, the midfield shape didn't tilt over enough to compensate and, as a result, there was no attacking threat from Baines and no respite for the full-back from the danger posed down his channel.
On the opposite flank, Glen Johnson did well enough defensively but similarly lacked cover in the first half when Italy dominated possession, but unlike Baines who improved offensively, Johnson remained slow to release the ball and gifted it back to Italy too often.
Of course, it might be expected that England will not face such quality opposition down the flanks every game, but Costa Rica showed that their wing-backs will happily push on and show great pace, which in a 3-4-3 can easily lead to an overload against England's wide defenders. Uruguay can switch their tactics about at will, and while they looked far more lethargic and unimaginative than most at the World Cup so far, an in-form Cristian Rodriguez or Edinson Cavani moving wide could certainly cause problems.
After the match, Rio Ferdinand commented on BBC television that Rooney struggled in the left-sided role and should be restored to his natural position, either up front or just off in the No. 10 role. However, Sturridge scored for England and clearly leads the striker role just now, while Raheem Sterling was man of the match as the No. 10.
Lots lamenting the deployment of Sterling and Rooney tonight. RS was #eng best player as no10. Has WS ever been since Euro 08? No.— Massimo Marioni (@MassMarioni) June 15, 2014
Another lacklustre display and two standout moments—a big chance to equalise miss and a horribly misdirected corner—beg the question once more: Should Rooney be benched?
If he can't play his best places, and England can't afford to carry passengers, should he be used as an impact substitute?
It's not all about Rooney, but Hodgson can't afford any kind of slip-up against Uruguay. England must win that game and, as such, the attack needs to be firing and confident. Rooney is neither just now.
Adam Lallana created problems for Italy with his movement between the lines and Ross Barkley with his driving runs. It was encouraging to see England have a couple of good, positive, influential options off the bench—any side must have that in a World Cup.
Jack Wilshere does not belong in this group, at this moment.
He is out of form, has done nothing of note over the past few months to warrant being in the squad, let alone a third-choice central midfielder. His performance after coming on against Italy was naive at best and self-centred at worst, surely ignoring tactical instruction to move the ball on quickly rather than dribble head-first into crowds of three Italian defenders.
A midfield change was required, but Wilshere was not it—and should not be it again.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain back to fitness will be an impressive option, Rickie Lambert adds another dimension in attack and Danny Welbeck's good showing will present another choice if he returns to bench duty in favour of another starter.
Having seen all four group teams in action, it's clear England have enough to beat Uruguay and Costa Rica if they play to their best. But to do so they need to eradicate the problems which have persisted, and that means some big decisions to be made by Hodgson.
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