England’s World Cup campaign begins on Saturday evening in Manaus and the identity of the opponents could hardly be more appropriate. Italy were the side who ended England’s previous tournament adventure at the quarter-final stage of Euro 2012.
Roy Hodgson was only in his second month in charge at that point and the patch-up job required following Fabio Capello’s untimely exit quite rightly afforded the England boss plenty of leeway. Two years on and this is his team. Signs of progress will be expected and a game against the Azzurri should represent an accurate barometer.
“Italy have stayed together very well, so they have two more years of experience of qualifying,” said Hodgson this week. “There aren’t so many new players to emerge – we are discussing in our pre-match videos the same sort of players we played against previously.”
Up against a stable side still coached by the same man, Cesare Prandelli, the question facing Roy Hodgson and his team is an obvious one – What have they learnt from their Euro 2012 elimination against the Italians? Here are just some of the issues that will need to be addressed…
Can they stop Pirlo controlling it?
“We paid nowhere near enough attention to him,” claimed Paul Scholes in his recent Paddy Power blog when referring to the performance of Italy’s midfielder Andrea Pirlo against England. “Roy Hodgson seems to have underestimated him in 2012. We cannot make the mistakes of 2012 again.”
Italy enjoyed 64 per cent possession that day in Kiev and nobody saw more of the ball than Pirlo. Perhaps the foremost playmaker of his generation, his qualities should not have come as a surprise and yet the freedom he was afforded was certainly startling.
Wayne Rooney was the England player nominally occupying the No.10 position but he neglected his defensive duties in any meaningful sense, failing to stifle Pirlo in his deep-lying prompting role. The result was that Pirlo was able to pick out some dangerous passes early on and control the tempo of the match throughout.
Danny Welbeck was used in a more advanced role than Rooney two years ago but the intelligent forward would be Scholes’ choice for the man-marking job on Pirlo. “Looking at the squad, Danny Welbeck - a good defender, who can nick the ball well - could be an option and would be a bold decision, one which gives England a creative outlet, and saddles Pirlo with defensive work.”
That might be seen as a negative move given that it would involve shifting Rooney from his favoured position or potentially ignoring the explosive talents Ross Barkley. But it would seem to be in keeping with the thoughts of Hodgson who name-checked others when quizzed on the relative merits of Rooney and Barkley in that No.10 slot.
“It is not just Rooney or Barkley there,” said Hodgson “There is also the boy we haven’t seen yet, Raheem (Sterling), and Welbeck. We have got a few people who can do it.” The inclusion of Sterling among those names is particularly intriguing given that the youngster has occupied the position to such good effect for Liverpool – and with real defensive discipline too.
“Raheem is a clever footballer,” Reds boss Brendan Rodgers told the Liverpool Echo in March. “For a young boy, tactically he's very good. He’s maturing very well. We've seen we have options with him because of his tactical intelligence.”
Much like Welbeck, Sterling would offer England the potential to spring attacks on the transition when working in close vicinity to Pirlo. The veteran would certainly be unlikely to catch him. “When he starts in the centre he offers us penetration with his speed,” adds Rodgers.
Sterling would perhaps be a more appealing option for supporters and with Welbeck suffering an injury setback, it is believed the ploy has been explored in training. Whatever the choice, Hodgson's No.10 cannot be allowed to eschew his tactical responsibilities in that position. Stopping Pirlo simply must be a priority for England.
Can Rooney find the right role?
The importance of that position creates something of a problem regarding the role of Rooney after his underwhelming efforts two years ago. The 28-year-old is well on his way to becoming England’s all-time top goalscorer but finding the best way of utilising his talents remains a conundrum.
It is worth remembering that Sven-Goran Eriksson was criticised at the 2006 World Cup following Rooney’s sending off for a kick out at Ricardo Carvalho. The perception was that Rooney’s isolation as a No.9 and consequent failure to get involved had contributed to his frustrations.
By Euro 2012 he was being used as a No.10 and failing to deal with Pirlo and when Hodgson asked him to play on the left in last week’s friendly against Ecuador, the decision sparked a media furore with the wisdom of the move widely questioned. As Sir Alex Ferguson became acutely aware, there are no easy answers when it comes to Rooney.
Any appetite to drop the player for such a big game – as Ferguson, of course, did against Real Madrid last year - is unlikely to be shared by Hodgson. Rooney was England’s top scorer in World Cup qualifying and is a key figure in an otherwise inexperienced line-up. Where best to position that figure is a riddle Hodgson must solve.
Will Hodgson get the balance right?
England have a recent traditional of being strong defensively in tournament play. Prior to the uncharacteristic collapse against Germany in 2010, England had conceded just 10 goals in their previous 17 matches at the last four World Cups. Under Hodgson at Euro 2012, England let in three goals in their four matches and were eliminated following a goalless draw.
However, with the likes of John Terry, Ashley Cole and Rio Ferdinand now gone, there are lingering doubts about how impregnable the current back-four can be. The make-up of the squad has changed so significantly since Euro 2012 that it is now the team’s attacking strengths that have come to the fore.
England’s starting midfield against Italy in Ukraine included Ashley Young, James Milner and Scott Parker. Meanwhile, Welbeck and Andy Carroll were handed an hour each as the main striker. The fact that Daniel Sturridge scored more Premier League goals in 2013/14 than those two have managed between them in the past two seasons illustrates the increase in firepower.
Glen Johnson played in the game two years ago and fancies this is a different England now. “I think we had a good team when we played Italy last time, but now we have more players who can hurt them attacking-wise,” he says. “We have a bit more pace in the squad as well so hopefully we will get further on. I don’t think Italy will have met an England team like this before.
“The team we had before was a good side but maybe it was slightly defensive. If we can defend well now and use some of the pace and ability we have going forward we can cause problems.” Rather obviously, a more expansive game brings with it an increased vulnerability – and Johnson himself looks more vulnerable than most.
Does Johnson need some help?
Despite Liverpool enjoying a successful season, Johnson had a mixed time of it and looked a potential weak link at times during the warm-up matches for Brazil. Sky Sports readers gave Johnson a rating of 4.1 against Honduras – the worst of any player – and only Rooney fared worse in the eyes of the public against Peru.
Defensive lapses coupled with wastefulness in attack does not make for a good combination and the fact that Johnson is regarded as a better player going forwards could be a strength that is neutralised against Italy if England defend deep and fail to get hold of the ball. Playing in his own half is not ideal for Johnson and should he advance, it is an area Italy might look to exploit.
Prandelli’s willingness to use a 3-5-2 formation could leave England vulnerable if Johnson pushes on and leaves his centre-backs in a potential two-versus-two situation. Mario Balotelli and, in particular, Ciro Immobile are capable of causing problems with channel runs in between full-back and centre-back. Even Leighton Baines is susceptible here – as shown in the first half against Peru.
There are several options for Hodgson in this regard. The threat of those forward passes can be minimised by defending deeper. That was the response at Euro 2012 when it became clear there was not enough pressure on the ball in midfield. England conceded 35 attempts on goal but 12 were blocked and Italy failed to score in two hours of football so there are advantages to getting men behind the ball in terms of keeping the quality of chances down.
An alternative consideration might be to ensure there is ample defensive cover on the right flank ahead of Johnson. The more adventurous Adam Lallana appears to have been earmarked for the role but Sterling has shown he is capable of working back to help Johnson at club level. Hodgson might even be tempted by Milner if he is really concerned. With Italy’s formation uncertain, it might be a case of wait and see.
There are no easy solutions for Hodgson. The England boss has been unable to shake off his image as a cautious coach despite an adventurous squad selection and an evident willingness to introduce young players. England’s out-of-form right-back and that previous failure to prevent Pirlo strutting his stuff are obvious concerns. The extent to which Hodgson should seek to sacrifice the optimum attack in order to protect his team against exposure in these areas is less clear. We’re ninety minutes away from learning just how much England have learnt.