The European Championships are almost upon us, and England go to France on the back of three straight wins in their warm-up matches. Amidst the optimism that comes with this good form, and a theoretically simple group to negotiate, there is some concern due to the fact that the team has not looked fluid offensively. They have not only struggled to score, but to create solid chances from open play as well.
There is no obvious reason why this should be the case, for the first time in a long time England has a deadly squadron of forwards. Daniel Sturridge, when fit, scores goals for fun, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy have had superb seasons as well. Marcus Rashford is lightning quick and scored five goals in his 11 league appearances for Manchester United, despite the side not being the most offensively gifted in the Premiership.
The main reason lots of fans have been excited about England’s offensive play going into the tournament was due to the team’s much needed youth and speed. Raheem Sterling and Deli Alli were supposed to have the pace and trickery to open teams up on the counter, playing balls inside for Vardy to finish as he did all season for Leicester City. The plan seemed to be working when England came from behind to beat Germany 3-2 in a thrilling encounter, with Vardy’s improvisational flick finishing off a fast-break to bring the teams level. High pressing in that game from youthful legs caused Germany severe problems, with several good chances missed to put the game beyond doubt.
Against Portugal it seemed that this strategy was thrown out the window, and it was hard to see that the major difference between the two England sides was the addition of Wayne Rooney at Wembley. A decade ago, Rooney was perhaps the only England player capable of the sort of pace and directness that could give the opposition nightmares but ironically he is now the player depriving his own side of it.
He is England manager Roy Hodgson’s captain, and Hodgson says that he is a “mandatory starter”, who could play anywhere on the field, but the evidence thus far has shown that he has deprived England of some dynamism.
England lined up in a 4-4-2 diamond against Portugal with the strike pairing of Vardy and Kane, the same one that had sparked a comeback against Germany, but instead of playing the tricky Alli just behind with two water carriers as shuttlers; Eric Dier holding Alli was relegated to the periphery with Rooney at the point.
He didn’t exert the same sort of influence Alli would have. There was a struggle to get the ball into space for the strikers to run on to, and both Kane and Vardy were forced wide to accommodate the 30 year olds rampages into the box. England had almost 60% of the ball, in no small part due to Rooney’s skill in holding on to it, but were not doing enough with the possession they had.
Rooney can play in midfield, but this most recent season has shown that he is not as effective there as when he’s playing as a striker. He does have a football brain, and aside from his finishing he is far better when coming deep and setting up chances for midfielders running past than trying to be a true trequartista. In fact, against Portugal, England looked much better when Vardy went off and Rooney became a striker in his place.
Hodgson is reluctant to break up Kane and Vardy after seeing the damage they have done to opponents this season in the Premier League, and therefore the best option would seem to be relegating Rooney to the role of an impact substitute.
However, if he insists on shoehorning three offensive players into the side, it may be best to play Rooney on one of the sides of the diamond, and letting Alli push up to the point. Whoever is on the other side, most likely James Milner or Jordan Henderson, there will be more than enough running to ensure that Dier is not overwhelmed, and he can concentrate on playing intelligent balls into Alli or raking passes to the fullbacks. Vardy and Kane can stay closer together and occupy both opposition centre-backs without the threat of Rooney charging into the box and clogging up the works. Alli tends to stay at the edge of the 18-yard box, working the ball around and waiting for pull backs. Only when someone is at the byline does he move in to occupy space further up.
Some would say having a surplus of talented players is a good problem, but tournaments are often not won by the best squad. A clear system that has the confidence of the players is what really makes the difference in such a tight time period.
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