England manager Roy Hodgson might feel hard done if he finds himself under criticism following England’s loss against the Italians. There were adamant calls from all corners before England’s World Cup opener for Hodgson to be brave. Having largely comprised his squad with exciting young talent, the England manager was urged by both fans and pundits alike to start with an attacking lineup.
Hodgson did not disappoint. A front four of Danny Welbeck, Raheem Sterling, Wayne Rooney, and Daniel Sturridge seemed capable of worrying the Italians with pace and invention. Sterling, when on the ball, was direct. Welbeck was quietly one of England’s standout performers in a first half where his smart positioning and abundant speed troubled the Italians. Sturridge marked his first World Cup match with his first World Cup goal.
And that leaves us with Wayne Rooney. England’s number 10 will undoubtedly come out of the opener as the player most scrutinized. A fantastic left footed cross for Sturridge’s goal will do little to offset Rooney’s failure to track back throughout most of the game. The Manchester United stiker will be the easy target as fans look to make sense of how Leighton Baines regularly found himself outnumbered against the likes of Antonio Candreva and Matteo Darmian on England’s left flank.
However, Rooney’s defensive deficiencies were not the reason for England’s defeat. The match was ultimately decided in the midfield.
Sitting behind England’s bold front four were the defensive midfield pair of Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson. With a plethora of attacking talent ahead of them, the Liverpool duo did not seem under any pressure to provide an offensive spark. Gerrard and Henderson were instead entrusted with providing cover for the back four.
Hodgson’s plan looked good enough on paper. However, it quickly became apparent that Gerrard did not possess the legs to function in a two man midfield and adequately mark Italy’s midfielders. Whereas Henderson seemed willing to run out wide and protect Glen Johnson, the 34 year old Gerrard seemed reluctant to chase the younger duo of Candreva and Darmian.
Opposite Steven Gerrard was Italy’s Andrea Pirlo, a player that England fans knew all too well following his superb performance against England in the Euro 2012 quarterfinals. Unlike Hodgson, Italian manager Cesare Prandelli did not place defensive duties on his deep lying playmaker. Despite sitting just in front of Italy’s defense for large portions of the game, Pirlo rarely found himself one on one against England’s much quicker attackers. With Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio willing to do the dirty work, it seemed that Pirlo’s only job was to act as a catalyst for the Italian attack, a task that the 35 year old excelled at.
When Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers began deploying Steven Gerrard as a defensive midfielder, there was talk amongst Liverpool fans of the similarities between their Kop idol and Andrea Pirlo. The only similarities between the two iconic midfielders in England’s World Cup opener versus Italy were their positions as captains and their facial hair (although Pirlo probably beat Gerrard in that department too). The good news for England will be that the apparent difference between the pair was largely down to the tactics of the respective coaches. Steven Gerrard showed throughout the majority of Liverpool’s season that he can function effectively as the deepest midfielder. The key is surrounding Gerrard with players that have the legs to make up for his lack of mobility.