England manager Roy Hodgson set up tonight with an aggressive formation playing young Raheem Sterling, a natural winger, in the hole right behind Danny Sturridge and pushing Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck out onto the flanks. The two Manchester United strikers typically do not feature as wide midfielders at the club level.
Sterling was particularly inventive on the ball and the attacking midfield trio was often interchangeable with swapping of positions regularly occurring. However, Rooney whom Sir Alex Ferguson always found to be a suspect defender in open play was largely responsible for Italy’s best first half opportunities as he and Leighton Baines struggled to find any sort of understanding in defensive assignments on the left side.
Rooney was also far from a danger man who when pushed inside got easily marked out of the match and when he tracked back left huge gaps of space which was easily exploited by the Italians. One moment of brilliance though from the England number 10 led directly to Sturridge’s goal. The attacking move which began with a beautifully weighted pass by Sterling from his central position found Rooney on the left flank. Rooney then fired a perfect cross to Sturridge who slotted home the chance with ease. It was a beautiful moment of classic counter-attacking football, the sort of fluid movement Hodgson has sought to create with this side.
Otherwise however, Rooney was poor and without question more calls to drop him will come from this performance. In contrast, Welbeck’s movement throughout the first half was outstanding. He drifted inside with regularity and unlike Rooney was not easily marked. His influence on England’s positive play was apparent and again unlike his Manchester United strike partner, had a clear understanding of his defensive responsibilities.
In the deep-lying central midfield positions Jordan Henderson had a decent match but Steven Gerrard the England Captain along with Rooney the last member of the failed “Golden Generation” to be included in this England XI struggled.
Hodgson’s attacking setup worked brilliantly. England created a remarkable number of chances considering how difficult the Azzurri are to breakdown. But the lack of quality and cutting edge in the final third killed the Three Lions. Additionally, the heat and humidity took a toll on Hodgson’s men leading to the withdrawal of Welbeck, Henderson and Sturridge and the introduction of Ross Barkley, Jack Wilshire and Adam Lallana did little to break down the Italians. In fact, Wilshire was particularly poor both on the ball, being disposed on multiple occasions and defensively being caught out of position when Italy countered.
The injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had a dramatic impact today. In “Ox” Hodgson has a potential game changer that he could have called on to insert some creativity into the central midfield areas or even as a straight replacement for Welbeck when the Manchester United man began to tire.
Ultimately, Italy won because they have superior central midfield quality and in Mario Balotelli a striker of the highest caliber. Hodgson’s clever tactics and have a go approach cannot mask the limitations of this squad. Fortunately, the competition England will face in the remainder of this World Cup is unlikely to be as strong as the Italians, particularly in midfield.