England vs Norway comment: Another false dawn as young guns fail to fire England
England are left still trying to escape the shadow of the World Cup
In the world of marketing and politics new eras begin with slick glitzy video packages, soundbites and logos. The England football team has, however, seen too many false dawns to be excited by another new start so this one was launched in a two-thirds-empty stadium, against unknown opposition and, in truth, with not much that was new.
Unlike finalists Argentina, semi-finalists Netherlands and Brazil, and around a dozen other World Cup competitors England began their post-tournament re-birth under the same management as the old one. Indeed, seven of last night’s starting line-up were in the XI beaten by Italy and Uruguay in the space of six horrible June days in Brazil. Three of the others were in the squad leaving just one fresh face at kick-off, Everton’s John Stones, who made his full debut after a pair of brief appearances off the bench during England’s World Cup warm-up matches.
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What did signal a new start was not so much who was playing as who was not. The last time neither Steven Gerrard nor Frank Lampard started in the England engine-room was at home to San Marino in October 2012, a match which any 11 English players permed from the Championship would expect to win.
The last time England played a significant match without either was a year earlier, the 2-2 draw in Montenegro when Rooney was sent off and England just about hung on for the point that sealed their place at Euro 2012. The central midfield that day was Scott Parker and Gareth Barry, which shows how quickly things move on in football.
Yesterday the midfield pairing was Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson, aged 22 and 24 respectively, and flanked by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (21) and Raheem Sterling (19).
At club level both Henderson and Wilshere generally play in a midfield three ahead of a sitting player, and with a central striker and two wide men. Last night they had no covering player behind, but did have Rooney in front. This meant at least one of them had to curtail their natural attacking game or it would simply be a sequel to the old Lampard-Gerrard debate.
After an opening spell when both sat deep, not least because Oxlade-Chamberlain came in so often from the right it became crowded ahead of them, it was Henderson who made the sacrifice. Such an athletic presence for Liverpool, his running stats must have been well down and he was unable to show his best. His discipline allowed Wilshere to begin breaking forward into those areas around the box where his quick feet and inventiveness are best displayed. While Norway’s red wall was hard to penetrate Wilshere could have had a penalty just before the break when Havard Nordtveit misjudged a tackle.
But when Norway showed more enterprise in the second period England’s midfield struggled to gain possession and began to develop holes. Wilshere disappeared, Henderson was overrun. Better teams – like Switzerland on Monday perhaps – will punish England, but last night the excellent Sterling turned the game back England’s way winning the penalty that Rooney converted.
Hodgson immediately switched to a diamond midfield with Sterling at its point and Fabian Delph and James Milner, on for Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain, ahead of Henderson.
Being midway through the half this may have been pre-planned. England looked more comfortable, though that might have been the effect of scoring as much as the new formation. With the diligent Milner alongside, Henderson seemed less exposed, though one wayward crossfield ball highlighted the fact his long passing is not of the standard expected of a modern holding player since the likes of Andrea Pirlo dropped back.
The problem for Hodgson is there is no obvious alternative out there. The injured Michael Carrick is perhaps the nearest English player to a Xabi Alonso-type deep midfielder but he is not in the same class, as was underlined when Hodgson omitted him from the World Cup 23.
Michael Mancienne was once being groomed for the role, occupying it in front of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, and behind Henderson, in Stuart Pearce’s team at the 2011 European Under-21 finals. His career has subsequently drifted and though it could revive now Pearce, whose faith in Mancienne was not widely shared, has just taken him to Nottingham Forest, he is a long, long way from England recognition. In that respect maybe Henderson, by being willing and able to play deep, could have a more secure place, in the immediate future at least, than Wilshere. There is more competition in attacking midfield with players such as Ross Barkley and Adam Lallana around.
As for the new boy. With Glen Johnson and Kyle Walker injured Stones, 20, was at right-back, but his long-term future is in the centre, and not just because his positioning and pace have been exposed at full-back while playing for Everton.
With Seamus Coleman a fixture at Goodison Park, Stones will not get enough starts there for his club to solve those issues but to judge by the form of Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin, who have conceded 10 goals in three games so far, it cannot be long before Roberto Martinez plays him in the centre on a regular basis.
He does need more experience, a clumsy tackle on Tarik Elyounoussi, and being beaten by Joshua King before Joe Hart’s wonder save, illustrated that. Nevertheless, tall, elegant, composed on the ball, Stones is a player who offers hope for the future, and England need to clutch at every available straw.
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