England fall foul of misguided team selection

Hodgson’s decision to play Rooney on the left amounted to a waste of the player’s talent

On Friday night hundreds of England fans crushed into Bar do Armando on Rua 10 de Julho in Manaus and drank their heads off. Long after the sun had gone down it was still about 30 degrees and those England fans clad in Crusader surcoats and chain mail were perspiring savagely, but otherwise it could have been a regular Friday night out on the high street in Sutton or Crewe. These few square yards of Amazonia were a little England for the night.

You could shake your head at the sheer predictability – no matter how exotic the location, the English fans always want to do the same thing. But all about there were signs of a universal desire to take traditional culture to a strange places.

Armando's bar advertises its speciality as bolinhas de bacalhau, or fried balls of salt cod, the signature Portuguese dish. The salt cod has to be flown 6,000 miles from Norway to the banks of a river that teems with billions of fish so that people can kid themselves they are in Portugal for as long as it takes to eat lunch.

European sensibilities Across the street from Armando’s is the Teatro Amazonas, the famous opera house, built at the end of the


19th century when the rubber boom made Manaus the Doha or Dubai of its day. The rubber barons and politicians who ran the city were mainly South American by birth but European by inclination and some were united by a dream to bring European opera to the heart of the jungle. In one celebrated incident soon after the theatre opened, 16 members of a touring Italian opera company died of yellow fever.

This tendency isn't limited to matters of taste. The desire to adhere to cultural norms often supersedes practical considerations too. In his 2005 book Collapse, Jared Diamond describes how Norse settlers in 15th-century Greenland strove to recreate in that inhospitable location the culture they had left behind in their Norwegian motherland. They tried to farm dairy cattle amid the icy wastes, poured their meagre resources into church-building and slavishly imitated the latest fashions from the mainland.

Public demand

“For men, a sporty coat called a houpeland, which was a long, loose outer garment held in by a belt at the waist, and with loose sleeves up which the wind could whistle, jackets buttoned up the front, and tall cylindrical caps,” he notes. Eventually, the Norse would pay for their failure to acknowledge local realities by starving to death en masse.

Anyway, back to Manaus. Roy Hodgson surprised everyone on the day of the game by confirming that Raheem Sterling would start in a central position behind Daniel Sturridge, with Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck on the flanks in an adventurous line-up. The selection announced that Hodgson had taken the temperature of the nation and decided to give the people the daring team for which they yearned.

Curiously, the 2-1 defeat seemed to leave England feeling even better about themselves than they had before the match.

Phil Jagielka summed up the English mood: “This is what the public want to see. They want to see attacking players and people who can get it and dribble. You look at Raheem, you look at Welbz and Daniel, they did well, created a lot of problems. And even defensively, it wasn’t horrific.”

Jagielka’s positive assessment was shared by most of the English players who stopped to speak in the mixed zone.

Daniel Sturridge’s sunny demeanour was reminiscent of the statesmanlike magnanimity of Sean St Ledger in the mixed zone after Ireland lost 3-1 to Croatia in Euro 2012: scoring in a losing cause is better than not scoring in a losing cause.

“I think with these ones you leave feeling good inside because you think, ‘yeah, we played good football’,” said Sturridge, before tacking on the necessary formalities. “But end of the day it’s about the result and we were unfortunate not to get something out of the game.”

Sturridge’s upbeat mood was in contrast to that of Wayne Rooney, whose brilliant assist for Sturridge’s goal was the best English pass of the night.

Unfortunately for Rooney, the lasting memory of his performance might be the shanked second-half corner that flew into the stand behind the Italy goal. In the age of Vine, such moments can assume an outsize importance.

It was put to Rooney that most of Italy’s attacks had come down the same flank to which he had been posted for much of the game.

“They’re a clever team,” explained Rooney. “They had the wide men and the fullback and Verratti coming in. You have to leave one of them with the ball and if you block the pass to Verratti, the fullback will get high. If you block the full back, Verratti will get it.”

The BBC said you ran the most by half-time, remarked a journalist.

“Well, I’ve no problem doing that as I’ve said before. I’ve no problem doing that,” said Rooney, sounding defensive. “I felt no problems.”

Will there be changes to cope with fatigue?

“I felt absolutely fine, the weather weren’t an issue,” said Rooney, his face still a rich beetroot hue 40 minutes after the end of the game. Presumably, he did not want to admit anything that could be interpreted as a sign of weakness and used against him.

Torrid conditions A more realistic view came from the scorer of Italy's first goal, Claudio Marchisio. "Playing football in this humidity was frankly difficult," he said. "In certain moments I felt like I had hallucinations due to the heat."

A journalist then asked Rooney whether he still felt his place was guaranteed, given the choices now at Hodgson’s disposal.

“Why do you say that?” demanded Rooney . “Why would I feel my place in the team is guaranteed?” He glared at his questioner. “I work hard to try and get in the team.” And again for emphasis: “I work hard to try and get in the team. I have never ever said my place is guaranteed.”

I think he was asking if you expected to play against Uruguay, offered another journalist.

“I don’t expect to play. I work hard. I want to play.”

Rooney had worked hard. The way Hodgson set up the team gave him no option. When England had the ball he had to run forward and join the attack. When England lost it, which they usually did within a few passes, he had to run 40m back into midfield. The game plan required him to cover thousands of metres for very few touches of the ball.

Rooney’s work rate

The fact that Rooney was working harder than any other England player would have been largely invisible to people watching on television. This is why strikers like him hate playing wide. They know they are usually going to be made to look bad.

By the time Rooney was moved up front, after Sturridge had cramped up, he was too exhausted to do anything. No wonder he was the least positive England player after the game.

Hodgson’s tactics would have asked a lot of a stocky 28-year-old like Rooney on a crisp November day back in England. But a game plan that demands he set distance running records in tropical heat and humidity is hopelessly misconceived. It makes no more sense than a baggy-sleeved medieval leisure jacket in the Arctic winter or a piece of salt cod with a carbon foot print the size of Wembley stadium.

In the end Rooney was the victim of Hodgson’s playing to the gallery. The manager wanted the English press and public to applaud him for a brave team selection, but he wasn’t brave enough truly to commit to it.

Instead, he picked the names people wanted to see on the team sheet. Playing Rooney wide was a fudge – a way of dodging a difficult decision.

Rooney can only shine for England as a central striker. If Hodgson is not going to play him there, then he should drop him. But that really would be brave.

Ken Early

Ken Early

Ken Early is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in soccer