The problem with international friendlies, at least in terms of assessing the development of a team, is that they encourage managers to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily consider.
It’s a chance to experiment, pundits always say, and yet what coaches probably should be doing, given how few opportunities they have to play against sides of a similar level, is fine-tuning and finessing, using the games to work on building familiarity between a putative first team.
Not that it’s always the manager’s fault. Injuries and withdrawals meant that the England coach Roy Hodgson was without Raheem Sterling, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge for Tuesday’s trip to Italy and so, as he acknowledged after the 4-0 win on Friday, a switch away from a 4-3-3 to a system to two central strikers was almost forced upon him.
Given he has used the shape at times in qualifying and given the—understandable—pressure to give Harry Kane a start, he may have done that anyway, but ideally, surely, not against Italy and their 3-5-2.
There are few absolutes in tactics, little that is definitely right or wrong, but the 3-5-2 will always cause problems for a diamond. The three centre-backs in the 3-5-2 can mark the two centre-forwards with a man spare, while one of the three central midfielders can pick up the player operating at the tip of the diamond with a two-on-two match-up in the centre.
Probably most significantly, the narrowness of the diamond means that the wing-backs in the 3-5-2 will have space in front of them, allowing them to push up to join the midfield battle or offer attacking width.
England ran a similar risk away in Switzerland, meeting a side with very attacking full-backs with a diamond, but on that occasion, Wayne Rooney and Welbeck did a superb job of pulling wide from centre-forward to occupy the full-backs, which had the bonus of creating space for Sterling to surge into from the tip of the diamond.
With an additional central defender, the dynamic is different anyway but Kane and Theo Walcott struggled to stop the surges of the Italian wing-backs, Alessandro Florenzi and Matteo Darmian.
That perhaps explains why, before the end of the first half, Rooney moved to centre-forward with Walcott dropping back to the tip of the diamond, the hope presumably being that he could use his pace from a deeper position to burst through or round a narrow back three.
Walcott was not a success—but then he hasn’t been in great form for Arsenal really as he continues his rehabilitation from a serious knee injury—and England looked rather more threatening once Ross Barkley had come on 10 minutes into the second half.
Barkley, it should be said, also benefited from having Michael Carrick rather than Phil Jones playing at the base of the diamond; the authority he exudes and the intelligence of his passing gave England the base from which they dominated the second half, offering significant encouragement after a glum first period. If friendlies are about learning lessons, this surely was the clearest one for Hodgson: if fit, Carrick must play.
Otherwise there was further encouragement from Kane, who struggled at times against tight Italian marking but always offered a glimmer of threat while linking well at times with Rooney, and the impact from the bench of Andros Townsend, even in a deeper role to that which he usually plays at Tottenham.
“I thought both he [Barkley] and Townsend turned the game,” Hodgson said, per talkSPORT. “I thought Barkley in particular was really, really good. Very brave, very courageous, prepared to get on the ball all of the time and prepared to take people on. He really is an outstanding young talent.”
But most significant of all, perhaps, was the issue of shape: Hodgson’s hand was forced by the players he had available, and perhaps he would have done differently in a competitive game, but the message was emphatic. No matter what the desire to accommodate a popular and in-form rising star, it cannot be done at the expense of tactical coherence.