England expects more than mere goals at Wembley
Roy Hodgson targets perfect record in Group E as San Marino come to town
Roy Hodgson alongside Wayne Rooney at England’s press conference. “I don’t think any of us want a complacent life in football,” he said. Photograph: Adam Davy/PA Wire
Instinct suggests that England are on a hiding to nothing. They confront the joint lowest-ranked team in world football at Wembley tonight, San Marino arriving braced with only two professional players in their ranks and intent merely on avoiding humiliation, with everybody anticipating a thrashing. Anything other than a cricket score will feel insufficient and that expectation brings its own pressures.
Yet, while the goals inevitably fly in, Roy Hodgson must spy positives to sustain a longer-term vision. This has become an exercise in maintaining standards from that upbeat, encouraging victory in Switzerland last month that gave Group E a more comfortable feel, the most awkward hurdle overcome early. The management can now continue the process of developing a team to compete more coherently at Euro 2016 than they did at last summer’s World Cup.
Confronting San Marino may feel irrelevant. A game against Estonia in Tallinn on Sunday hardly feels onerous. Yet it is possible to chart underlying progress even in a mismatch. England may not expect much of their opponents but the sense is Hodgson and his players are challenging themselves to emulate last month’s relative excellence.
“At management level you never work without fear because you put a lot of pressure on yourself, and every game is very important,” said the manager. “I don’t think any of us want a complacent life in football. We want to test ourselves and set ourselves standards. I want this team to grow and to look back in two years’ time saying: ‘We’ve come a long way.‘ These two matches are important steps along the way.”
The fact he was even willing to countenance the possibility of emerging with a perfect record from the section spoke volumes. Certain areas will be targeted for evidence of progress. England adopted a diamond midfield in Switzerland to surprise their hosts but the manner in which the players revelled in the formation suggested it was a shape worth revisiting.
Jack Wilshere may not be a natural midfield holder but he could sit centrally against the Sammarinese and dictate the rhythm through the speed of his passing well enough. He needs to grow accustomed to that role, after all, witnessing the play from deeper. Those swashbuckling runs upon which he instinctively embarked against the Swiss should not be exploited by these opponents but it would still provide a lesson in how to dominate from deep.
“I thought that system, which we still need to work on and hone, could be really useful for me in the future to get crucial key players on the field together,” explained Hodgson when considering the diamond. This will surely be a far from fraught occasion to continue that tactical experiment.
There are other individuals who must seize an opportunity to impress. Danny Welbeck scored his brace in Basel but will see this match as another chance to stake his claim in the absence of Daniel Sturridge. Adam Lallana is competing in attacking midfield where England are so well stocked, so a reminder of how he can unlock massed defence would be timely.
The suggestion is Calum Chambers, promoted back from the Under-21s, will start at right-back, which would imply Phil Jagielka, at 32, earning a recall alongside Gary Cahill at centre-half. That feels like a wasted opportunity, if only because the Arsenal youngster could easily operate in the middle and allow Nathaniel Clyne become the 60th player capped by Hodgson on the right.
Seeing those youngsters may excite a crowd expected to reach around 50,000 as much as the public flogging of lowly opponents. Guardian service