The Blog

Step Into My Office, Wayne

I'm a little disorientated at the moment. This is due in part to the late nights watching the World Cup but more so because I'm overcome by a strange sense of optimism after England have lost their first game of the tournament. It feels rather strange.

I'm a little disorientated at the moment.

This is due in part to the late nights watching the World Cup but more so because I'm overcome by a strange sense of optimism after England have lost their first game of the tournament. It feels rather strange.

Saturday's performance told us what we already knew - we're not quite as good as the top sides in the world but we've got some young players who have the ability and the mindset to cause them problems. On balance of play we deserved a draw - we created more chances than Italy, moved the ball quickly through the pitch without giving the ball away and we stretched a defensive unit that is probably the most organised on show in Brazil, particularly in the opening half hour.

I'm not interested in debates about players who should or shouldn't be there - Hodgson has to focus on the squad he has at his disposal, and he has to work on the areas that need improvement.

If I put myself in Roy's shoes, I'd prioritise two key issues. The first is simple, the full backs need to defend better and most importantly, stop crosses from being delivered. Baines was exposed - I'll come on to that shortly - but he needs to work hard on the basics. This means closing space to deny the opposition time to deliver quality balls into dangerous areas as well as having a good understanding with the players around you to make play as predictable as possible and not leave space free for opponents to exploit and threaten your goal. Both Baines and Johnson provide good attacking outlets but they're not so good that they, or the team, can neglect the need to defend as a unit and do the basics very well.

The second is not so simple - I'm thinking about how I'd deal with it here.

One position presented a glaringly obvious weakness for Roy's boys on Saturday night - and we all know who was playing in that position. With the notable exception of an outstanding first touch and delivery for Sturridge's goal, Wayne Rooney contributed very little going forward and even less defensively. Playing on the left side of a 3 in a 4-2-3-1 formation, he had a responsibility to provide cover down the left side. He didn't do that and Italy targeted that area of the pitch, probably because other than the odd 40 yard run to chase down someone he has lost the ball to, Rooney doesn't defend well as part of a unit or individually. You could argue that he shouldn't have to as he's a forward but if you play him there, he has to do that job, even if Gerrard and Henderson do a great job in their roles in front of the defensive line.

Defending as a team is a concept that has really developed in the last few years as tactical awareness has developed. To do so, a team's attacking players don't need to make last ditch tackles and blocks, but they do need to take up intelligent positions to block holes, work in unison with their team mates to ensure the entire team unit adjusts position together and they also need to defend one on one in a way that at least delays the opposition's advance towards your goal. I felt for Baines as time and again, he was left dealing with 2 players and most of the Italy's threat came from that side of the pitch.

Raheem Sterling has proven many times this season that he can follow instructions and provide excellent cover in the left channel. It's a part of his game that has only developed in the last year but he has learnt quickly and has added that side to his game whilst maturing as an attacking threat - he is the only player I would play there.

When it comes to evaluating Rooney's attacking qualities, I simply don't think he warrants a place in the starting line up if you play 4-2-3-1. The only position I could make a case for him starting in is as the lone striker. His play back to goal is very good and for me is the best finisher in the side - he's still a class act in and around the box, and so you could justify picking him there. That said, whilst his movement across and in front of defenders is good, he doesn't have the pace to stretch defences in the same way that Sturridge does - when that happens space in front of the back four opens up and allows advancing midfielders to capitalise on that. Sturridge's pace also means when he gets a defender isolated he can get beyond him, and his finishing this season demonstrates he knows where the back of the net is.

So I'd go with Sturridge there. Given Rooney's lack of pace and positional awareness in wide areas, that leaves only the central space behind the striker, or the No10 position as it is often referred to.

The positive approach and attacking style England appear to have adopted is, for me, due largely to one man - Brendan Rogers. It's no surprise that with 5 of England's starting 10 outfielders drawn from Liverpool, we play forward quickly through the pitch (ie not sideways and backwards) when we break and look to expose pockets in the opponents' half before their defensive unit retreats, gets organised and looks after the space in the final third.Rooney's technique and mindset when he receives the ball at No10 is a product of a bye gone era. He feels for a defender, protects the ball, takes 3 or 4 touches and looks for support before often playing a ball wide or dropped back in to a supporting player. By the time he's done that the opposition are set. In contrast, when players like Sterling, Lallana and Barkley receive the ball, there is a marked difference. Already aware of what space they have, they receive the ball and turn as they are doing so. If a quick pass forward is on again they play it quickly or if an opposing defender looms, they often show the defender the ball to lure him in and then glide by using balance, speed and disguise. This allows the team to keep moving forward quickly and ultimately, create more chances. It's a great strategy when playing in the heat of Brazil as you can sit off when the opposition have the ball and expend energy trying to break you down and then break quickly at the turnover of play.

Any 2 from Lallana, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Welbeck - not as composed as the others but very disciplined and very dynamic when breaking beyond the opposition's midfielders - and Barkley could take the remaining 2 slots and could rotate positions which adds further creativity and threat for the opposition's defence to deal with.

Hodgson doesn't get months and months to embed patterns with the national team so it's a wise move to harness and adapt a pattern that is working incredibly successfully for a club side.

Fot all those reasons, I wouldn't start with Rooney - he would have to be content with a place on the bench and know that his responsibility would be to go on and play as a striker and score goals when called upon - he is still capable of being a massive influence on this World Cup in that role.

As a good pal of mine said to me though, that's not a straightforward conversation for Roy to have. English football builds big egos and creates agendas that make Hodgson's job far more political than it need be. I accept all of that, and also the risk that if you drop such a big name and the youngsters fail to deliver, you're left holding the baby when the media frenzy is thinking up silly nicknames and root vegetable references.

So it's easy for me to say this in the comfort of my armchair - but I'll say it anyway.

Team is everything, and balanced teams with players that work together to execute a plan in a system that works are usually successful ones. Rooney would no doubt be disappointed and the initial reaction would not, I fear, be pretty. My message to him would be clear - I'm picking the team, and the team I've picked is the one I think has the best chance of winning. As the game develops, a time will come when I need you, your team mates need you and a whole nation watching will need you. So take some time to deal with it, and then be ready to deliver.


History is full of examples where players have thrown their toys out of the pram after such decisions have been taken, but I could also draw on many examples where established players have chosen to respond by getting behind their team mates, being a positive influence on the young players and accepting the responsibility of having to be prepare mentally to come off the bench and contribute meaningfully.

Given it's World Cup time, I'd like to use Miroslav Klose as the best example - a player who has at times struggled to play as a lone striker and has suffered a number of serious losses of form. This is his fourth World Cup finals tournament and he scored 5 goals in both 2002 and 2006, in which he finished the tournament as top scorer. Can you imagine the pedestal that man would have been on if he was English?! Regardless, as age caught up with him and playing systems evolved, he had to accept the fact he had a different role to play.

I don't know what Klose's initial response was, but I bet he gives everything he's got in this, his last major tournament - even if that means supporting from the bench. I see more maturity in Rooney these days and hope he would follow Klose's example, even if the English football media turned the issue into a soap opera.

It's a big call and Hodgson has made brave and positive decisions as he has increasingly released the team from the shackles of his natural 4-4-2 pragmatism. My one criticism of him is that this situation should have been resolved before the finals - it was easy to spot the increasing concern about Rooney's role in this, more fluent attacking set up.

That aside, he deserves enormous credit for delivering a side who performed on the biggest stage in a way that no England side has done since 1990 - with the bravery and belief to take a game to one of the World's best teams.

And he does it all with a sense of dignity and grace that is rarely seen in the game today - yet another good reason to be proud of your country this summer.