World Cup: England team selection in spotlight

Wayne Rooney could be moved into the middle as Hodgson looks to shuffle his squad. Picture: PA
Wayne Rooney could be moved into the middle as Hodgson looks to shuffle his squad. Picture: PA
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Out-of-sorts Wayne Rooney’s place is the focus of discussion as others come to the fore following the 2-1 defeat to Italy, writes Alan Pattullo

Like so many visitors to Manaus, England found they were treated with kindness. The problem is, they could end up being killed by it.

If England truly believe, as was being heavily suggested, that similar performances to the one posted here against Italy on Saturday evening will result in the two wins even manager Roy Hodgson conceded they will now likely need to progress, then it spells trouble for their prospects of participating further in the tournament.

It appears to have escaped the notice of many commentators that you have only three chances at a World Cup. This is reduced very quickly to one if the first match is lost, with England now left in a situation where defeat to a Uruguay side who are also in desperate need of lift-off would likely prove fatal to their hopes of progress.

This, England’s first competitive fixture in Brazil since a 1-0 defeat to Spain in Rio de Janeiro during the 1950 World Cup, was their chance to make a statement in a tournament that is already being hailed as one of the greatest yet seen.

Instead, they return from this intriguing trip to Amazonia with only a well-worked goal from Daniel Sturridge for a souvenir. They were also deprived of a valuable member of the backroom staff when physio Gary Lewin slipped and dislocated an ankle while celebrating the strike.

“We had high hopes, but we lost,” was how Hodgson summed things up yesterday, following Italy’s 2-1 victory. He was continuing the process of picking over the bones of a defeat that has been greeted in some areas as signifying a step forward for England, despite the side now teetering on the edge of elimination.

“No, we won’t panic,” reflected Hodgson. “We will try and cheer them [the players] up. We will show them some of the things in the game that were very good, we will address some of the issues we think need to be addressed, as one does.”

One of these issues, indeed the most pressing of them surely, is what to do with Wayne Rooney? Although the Manchester United player worked hard, somehow he managed to muster only two touches of the ball inside the box (he had only twenty touches in total in the first half, although two of them did set up England’s equaliser, after Claudio Marchisio’s excellent 34th minute opener).

Asked whether he might go with the same team against Uruguay, Hodgson responded, cagily: “I think that is a good question.” He explained that he is going to take some time to have another look at the game, when he will be able to count for himself the remarkably low touches of the ball Rooney had in an area of the park that is usually fairly crucial when it comes to scoring goals.

It is inconceivable that someone such as Luis Suarez, who is facing a race to be fit to start against England in Sao Paulo on Thursday, would ever post such statistics, and yet Hodgson’s formation, which was undeniably adventurous and helped coax an initially electrifying performance from 19-year-old Raheem Sterling, has been hailed as a success.

However, restricting someone such as Rooney, who must still be considered as their principal talent, to such an auxiliary role seems a terrible waste, as England again failed to excel when the pressure was on.

The truth is, England have still not beaten what most would consider to be a leading football nation at a finals tournament since a 1-0 win over Argentina on the Japanese island of Hokkaido in 2002, when David Beckham converted a penalty with a redemptive flourish. They have consistently failed to over-achieve. Expectations have now receded to the point where a performance that failed to secure even the point many expected against the traditionally slow-starting Italians has found acclaim.

While there were commendable parts to their display, here England again fell short against a team who knew exactly what it takes to secure victory. Goalkeeper Joe Hart beat his chest and saluted the English fans at the end in a mark of defiance. However, it was the goalkeeper’s greeting to Andrea Pirlo as the two men shook hands after the final whistle that told the true story of what unfolded on a humid, steamy night in Manaus.

“Wow”, Hart said admiringly (before also uttering a profanity for good measure) as he approached the 35-year-old, whose free-kick moments earlier had changed direction sharply in the air, like an Amazon bird of paradise, before hitting the bar. Italy’s star players were every bit as influential as they needed to be in these high-octane circumstances. England’s, meanwhile, were not.

Another fitful performance from Rooney preoccupied the thoughts of many English reporters afterwards, as Hodgson was asked to explain as well as rate the Manchester United player’s performance.

“I thought he did well,” he said, when it was put to him that some pundits on television at home were engaged in fevered debate about the player’s contribution. Hodgson was asked to explain the performance because he was the one who deployed Rooney wide on the left, where he has rarely looked comfortable for either club or country. The manager answered that the plan had been “to get Raheem Sterling around Pirlo”, which in turn meant moving Rooney away from the middle and out onto the flank.

“Of course we do,” he said, when it was proposed that England might want their current leading goalscorer, who is only 11 goals away from equalling Sir Bobby Charlton’s all-time record, more involved in the penalty box.

Rooney himself participated in the debate afterwards, reacting testily when asked whether he felt, given the choices at Hodgson’s disposal, his position in the team was guaranteed. “Why would you say that?” he replied. “I work hard for the team. I don’t expect to play, I work hard. I want to play.”

Indeed, there can be few complaints about his industry. “I don’t know,” Rooney replied, when asked whether playing where he did brings out the best in him. When it was pointed out to him that the BBC had calculated he had run 5.6kms by half-time, he said: “I have said before, I have no problems doing that”. As for the role he was given wide on the left? “It’s down to the manager, obviously.”

Hodgson has much to ponder as he figures out how to move on from here. Of course, he has concerns about his own players without having to focus on Suarez, who should be involved at some point on Thursday in Sao Paulo’s Itaquerao stadium. The forward arrived at Liverpool just after Hodgson was sacked as manager. While he clearly rates him highly, Hodgson paused when he was asked whether Suarez deserves to be ranked alongside the likes of Lionel Messi and Ronaldo.

“I think he will only be at that level when he shows it on this particular stage,” he said. “I think he has the potential. Is he a wonderful footballer? He sure is.”

Given Rooney’s continued struggles at this level, it was instructive to hear who Hodgson felt had underlined why he deserves to be ranked alongside the likes of even Beckenbauer, Maradona and Pele: Pirlo. “He is in that category,” he said. “He has shown it time and time again. Because this is the stage you have to do it on really. Being a great player in your own league is all very well, but for the world to recognise you, you have got to do it at the World Cup.”