England’s friendly with Ecuador at Sun Life Stadium in Florida on Wednesday saw Roy Hodgson experiment with squad selection and tactics. James Milner got a surprising start at right back, while Wayne Rooney played on the left side of midfield in what started out as a 4-1-3-1-1 formation. England manager Roy Hodgson used the occasion to build some depth and get some important playing time to youngsters and those battling for match fitness such as Phil Jones.
The surprise setup yielded England an early opportunity when Rooney made a run from his left side position into the Ecuador area creating an early goal scoring opportunity. Ecuador scored in the eight minute thanks partly to a miscommunication error by James Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlin on the right side of defense.
England’s midfield was at times losing its shape early in the match but as time wore on, the tactical plan became clear. The wide midfielders in this formation, Rooney and Oxlade-Chamberlain, would have the freedom to pinch inside while the fullbacks, Luke Shaw and James Milner, would have to provide natural width through overlapping runs.
Rooney was a danger man pushing inside and linking up well with the midfielders and Liverpool new signing Rickie Lambert who had an outstanding effort playing alone up top. Because Rooney was playing a wide role in the midfield, at times the England formation became asymmetrical as the Manchester United superstar pushed further inside as the match wore on. Still the formation was effective going forward when England managed not to give the ball away.
The center of midfield anchored by Frank Lampard was solid throughout most of the first half. However, in the second half Jack Wilshere’s touches became more erratic and his defensive positioning was at times quite poor. Ross Barkley caught the eye with some sharp moves playing in the hole right behind Lambert but also gave the ball away far too easily in the attacking end on multiple occasions. Wilshere’s propensity to try and take guys on by dribbling through them became more problematic as the match wore on, and Ecuador’s defense quickly figured out his game.
Worryingly, England looked susceptible on the counter attack partly because Lampard is not a classic ball winner in a holding midfield role but largely because the flank play and England’s fullbacks were often caught up the pitch or taking bad angles when tracking back.
The tactical variation on offing from Hodgson in this match was meant to test the fitness of certain players who may have to fill in roles during the World Cup. In his post-match comments, the England manager indicated that Milner will not start at right-back in the World Cup but as he has done that at Manchester City on multiple occasions over the past few seasons, and he could be asked to slide into a defensive role during the match at some point. One has to assume Rooney’s role on the left side was also purely experimental although Hodgson was not asked to address that post-match.
England’s progress in its week in Miami cannot be measured by results but by individual performances and the comfort level of the team. On that score, today went very well except for the injury concern to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.