This is, it should be said, a conflicted World Cup for me. I am massively excited to see the games, the attacking prowess on show and the top players battling for dominance. After the Spain Netherlands game my appetite was whetted, a clash of the titan’s – total possession football being taken apart by counter attacking at speed, with a directness that exploited the Spanish defensive frailties – similar to the Barcelona Bayern match but with less of the muscularity displayed by the German midfield… So I am excited, yet in the case of my own team I have practically no expectation of success.
Part of this lack of excitement is historic certainly – for as long as I’ve know a player has been labeled as central to England’s success – Gascoigne, Beckham, Owen, Rooney… But whereas in the past these players have been venerated to near the status of a deity, this time it has all been different. Rooney has been mentioned, but with strong voices of dissent – Paul Scholes, the quietest man in football, took time out from his 35 year silence to tell the press he thought Rooney would struggle. When a formerly mute ex-teammate has turned against you there has to be a worry.
So we lost the game. 2-1 as it happens but unlike previous defeats this felt encouraging. Firstly the team played aggressively – there was attacking direct intent – not content to be patient, they wanted to force the play and were, largely, willing to take risks. Stirling, Sturridge, Henderson, Baines, Johnson, Barkley all forced the Italians into one on one situations – it is credit to their defensive nous that the block & cover defensive position was so successful and Italy only conceded one. Secondly the pace of play when in possession was admirable – a pass was with power, it looked like players trusted one another to trap and control strong balls – it mean that the more ambitious balls which in previous World Cups would be cut out made their target. There was also an encouraging willingness to get behind the defence, using through balls into space and relying on the pace of the attack to get balls quickly into the box. Heads were up, looking for the next pass with movement largely very fluid, Baines, the prime example of this, rarely needs to look at the ball and consequently sees passes earlier and loses the ball less often.
There were however some issues. Firstly the one that’s been mentioned most on twitter and facebook. Wayne Rooney. He looked lethargic, lacking both the pace, and more importantly the aggression to challenge the right hand side and midfield of Italy. His tracking back was poor and too many times he pulled out of tackles or didn’t offer the physical presence that the much skinnier and slighter Stirling and Sturridge were. Yet his quality is clearly there. The question remains of his best position. Welbeck, despite scoring and playing in a more advanced position was defensively stronger, applying pressure and pressing the Italian backline, causing them to make mistakes. Yet he is reluctant to take on the defenders, even those he outpaces by some distance. So, what’s the solution? Rooney is a better finisher of the ball, and poacher, and needs to be encouraged to amend his game (much as Gerrard has) from the all action hero to the Klose of the squad. He has players who can create chances, he needs to be taking risks and using his physicality more often. Welbeck, has pace, as a substitute in the final 20, he could be essential in dragging tired defenders – leaving a gap on the left perhaps best filled by Lallana – a player who showed glimpses of brilliance, but who wasn’t supported enough at the end of the game.
Defensively England were not terrible. The centre half pairing were unlucky with the first goal, 9 time out of 10 that’ll hit an advancing player and had the midfield pushed out sooner the danger would have been avoided. The room afforded to Pirlo in possession was initially a worry, but England operated tight lines between defence and midfield mostly, leaving him little time to make a massive influence. However, as the game slower and legs tired, the space grew, particularly in transitional play leaving the defence more vulnerable to counter attack or turnovers in possession.
All is not lost for England yet – it was an encouraging start – victory over Uruguay and Costa Rica are real possibilities. The question is Rooney. Will he be moved to encourage his phenomenal talent (currently dormant) or dropped to the bench to increase the pace on show.
Finally. Pirlo’s beard. Just wow. Has there ever been a cooler footballer?