England won 10 out of 10 in Euro 2016 qualifying. It has won four out of five friendlies this year. It has the youngest squad in France. In most respects, everything seems to be moving in the right direction. Yet after England’s final friendly, a 1-0 home win over a Portugal side reduced to 10 men by a crazy challenge from Bruno Alves after 35 minutes, the mood was downbeat.
“Limp,” said The Guardian. “Uncomfortable,” said The Times. “England struggle,” said the Daily Mail. “Frustrating,” said the Mirror.
On Twitter, the complaint went up that, nine days before the tournament, manager Roy Hodgson didn’t know his best team. Which is a bizarre complaint. The vast majority of sides, whether club or national, don’t have a best team. They have basic shapes and they adapt to circumstance. Leicester City, with its consistency of selection this season, represents a glorious anachronism. In 1966, when England won the World Cup, it may be noted, Alf Ramsey didn’t know his best team, only settling on the winning lineup in the quarterfinal.
Hodgson has two formations in mind, the two he used in qualifying and that he has continued to polish in the friendlies. He will not be seduced into playing a 4-2-3-1 as he was before the World Cup. That lesson has been learned. Even with the emergence of Eric Dier to protect the back four, Hodgson accepts that this defense needs the cover of three midfielders. Both his proposed systems begin with 4-3. The question is whether he plays a 4-3-3 or a 4-3-1-2.
Against Portugal, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy were the front two. With 49 Premier League goals between them this season, the desire to get both in the team makes sense, especially given they are such different players.
There have been signs, late on in the friendly win over Germany and in the home games against the Netherlands and Turkey, of a partnership developing.
In the game against Portugal, both made a clear effort to work wide, to block in the fullbacks, which is an essential part of the job of the strikers in a diamond, which otherwise lacks width. When England played a diamond in the first qualifier away against Switzerland, Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney were superb as the front two, preventing the attack-minded Swiss fullbacks Stephan Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodriguez from getting forward.
There was much criticism of Hodgson for that, particularly as Vardy had only seven touches in the game with six coming on the left wing and one taking a kickoff, but realistically England needs that protection. Vardy’s ineffectiveness has at least as much to do with the fact that Portugal sat very deep, particularly after the red card, reducing the amount of space he had to run into to almost zero.
There may be a lesson for Hodgson there, that against teams who sit deep against England, as Slovakia certainly will and Russia and Wales may, Vardy is not necessarily the most effective option. It could be later in the tournament, against more adventurous sides, when England can play more on the break, that he comes into his own.
But the biggest question is about Wayne Rooney.
He’s become such a bone of contention that proper discussion is almost impossible, the England-watching world divided into irreconcilable factions of pro- and anti-Rooney. Perhaps he did at times play too high against Portugal, but then doing so allowed him to make bursts into the space left by Vardy and Kane pulling wide, transforming 4-3-1-2 into 4-3-3.
He is not as graceful or explosively quick as he once was, and there are times when he can seem to slow down the fluency of an attack, but he remains a highly intelligent player, an all-around footballer who is good in the air, can score from range, sees gaps in defenses and is more than prepared to hustle.
In time, perhaps, England will be better with Dele Alli pushed higher, perhaps with Rooney dropping into midfield, perhaps with Hodgson selecting two rather than one of Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Jack Wilshere alongside the indispensable Eric Dier. But it’s reasonable that Hodgson should go into the tournament with his first-choice front three being England’s all-time leading goalscorer and the two top-scorers in the Premier League last season, the Va-Roo-Ka triumvirate.
If, that is, he prefers to start with the 4-3-1-2 rather than the 4-3-3. Tempting as it may be to unleash the pace of Vardy against the two veteran Russia central defenders, Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutsky (who are 36 and 33, respectively), it may make more sense against a side likely to sit deep and with major problems at left back to use a 4-3-3, possibly using Raheem Sterling’s pace from wide to attack the slow heart.
With Kane a certain starter at center forward, though, that raises questions about Rooney’s role: he would probably have to play form the left–something Hodgson thankfully tried in the win over Australia.
England has options, and it has, as far as possible, been tested in the three pre-tournament friendlies. Hodgson has flexibility and, unburdened by the sort of celebrity culture that has dogged England in the past, can make changes according to circumstance. For all the recent doubts, England goes into this tournament in a healthier position than it has been for a decade.