In one of his more contemplative moments on Sunday, Wayne Rooney recalled how he sat down for a chat with Raheem Sterling before the World Cup and told the Liverpool man how much he reminded him of Marc Overmars
It was an interesting choice given that Overmars was very much the out-and-out left winger, a player of devastating pace who put pressure on full-backs, not least John Curtis, the young Manchester United player whose Old Trafford career never seemed to recover from his encounter with the Dutchman in March 1998. Sterling, however, is already considered as much a No 10 as a winger, the position he began his professional career in.
On Monday night against Switzerland at St-Jakob Park in England’s first Euro 2016 qualifier, it will be Sterling upon whom the expectation rests, regardless of his age and the stage of his development. Asked whether Sterling should be given more time and space, Rooney simply made the comparison with the former Arsenal winger. Rooney knows better than most that once the expectation has begun there is little chance of stopping it.
“He [Sterling] is a fantastic player,” Rooney said. “You saw that last season, and with the start to this season. He’s quite an unusual player. He can play right across the front line, out wide. Although he’s a small lad, he’s really strong as well. I sat down with him before the World Cup and showed him videos of Marc Overmars. He reminded me of him.
“I think he has the potential to be as good as Overmars. He’s a young lad, but the potential he’s shown is incredible. He’ll be a massive player for us for the next 10 to 15 years, and – unfortunately – for Liverpool.”
It is chastening to think that Sterling was not yet four years old when Overmars won the League and FA Cup Double with Arsenal in 1998. Yet, as Roy Hodgson, the England manager, had earlier explained, he is part of a new generation of English footballer. A generation of players that do not fit what he said were the old stereotypes.
Switzerland vs England key confrontations
Switzerland vs England key confrontations
1/3 RICARDO RODRIGUEZ v RAHEEM STERLING
Sterling is shining with both club and country right now. An explosive, pacy, attacking force, he was named man of the match in Liverpool’s 3-0 win at Tottenham and again in England’s 1-0 defeat of Norway. Whether through the middle or out wide, the teenager is set to play a key role in Basel and it will be up to Rodriguez to stop him. The Wolfsburg man is a key performer in the Swiss defence and also poses an attacking threat, with his ability to cross and dribble impressive.
2/3 GOKHAN INLER v JORDAN HENDERSON
This clash could well be decisive in determining the outcome. Henderson has developed markedly over the past 12 months and looks to have established himself as a sure-fire starter in Roy Hodgson’s midfield. His ability to both break up the play and start attacks is key to England. Inler brings similar attributes to his side. The Switzerland captain is key to many of his side’s attacks and is excellent at intercepting.
3/3 JOSIP DRMIC v GARY CAHILL
Although Switzerland have impressive strength in depth through defence and midfield, a striker has yet to establish himself as an undroppable force. Admir Mehmedi of Freiburg and Eintracht Frankfurt’s Haris Seferovic are options for the new manager, Vladimir Petkovic, but he may plump for 22-year-old Drmic. An excellent finisher, the Bayer Leverkusen No 9 is a direct attacking outlet and could make life difficult for Cahill and his fellow defenders.
“With the players we are producing at the moment in England, the young ones coming forward, they do offer different options,” Hodgson said. “They’re not stereotyped in their play. Very few are classic No 9s, 10s, 7s, 4s or 6s. They’re capable of doing different things. We just want to use them in the best way.”
Later he reflected on the differences that he saw from his first high-profile job in English football at Blackburn Rovers almost 20 years earlier. “The type of players coming through now are different to then. It’s very difficult now, in an England team at any level, to find a player who [as well as being] clever and understands the game is not pacey or fast. That’s even centre-back. In the past we had stereotypical players who got by on the quality of their play. Not now.”
Hodgson’s point was that every player is now expected to have the athleticism and power, that was once not considered strictly necessary in individuals who had exceptional technique. The question for him in this qualifying campaign will be whether he can harness these 21st century footballers and turn them into a successful force in the 21 months before the next European Championship.
One of the big decisions is over Sterling and whether, in the absence of Daniel Sturridge, he operates as a wide player in a 4-4-2 formation – Overmars-style – or is asked to drop in behind the front two of Danny Welbeck and Rooney at the tip of a midfield diamond. What happens in Basel, against England’s toughest opponent in qualification, will go some way to defining how the team play throughout Group E.
That was acknowledged by Hodgson who is evidently keen to develop a way of playing so when he reaches the tournament he is not still grasping for an effective way of blending these young players. He said he would take a victory playing badly, but that he would not be parking the proverbial bus.
“It’s up to us now to perform well, play well,” Hodgson said. “Is it enough to come here and play 10 behind the ball and sneak a 0-0? No, I’d say it isn’t. We have to play well and do well here. If the result costs us, we have to make sure we learn from losing the battle and make sure we win the war.
“Winning this game does not make a great team in 2016. Neither does losing it make us a poor team in 2016. We are not in an embryonic stage. We are carrying on, despite the massive blow of the World Cup. It’s not a totally new team. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ross Barkley, Sterling were working with us before and so they’re not new, but it is an early stage. We have to make sure after these next two years we are very, very strong.”
The severity of the injury picked up by Jordan Henderson in training was not immediately obvious and at least in that position Hodgson has cover with James Milner and Fabian Delph. His session in the evening sunshine showed just how few players he has left – just 19 now that Sturridge has gone home – the third from an original squad of 22, and if Henderson’s injury is serious then there will be only five outfield players on the bench tonight. In Switzerland, Hodgson still finds himself a national hero for his two successful qualifying campaigns with the national team, for the 1994 World Cup finals and Euro ’96. The Sunday edition of the Blick newspaper carried an interview with Hodgson’s former assistant Hans-Peter Zaugg who recalled how Hodgson had revolutionised Swiss football by dispensing with the “libero” position in defence and insisting his teams played 4-4-2.
In fact, Zaugg remembered that it proved so successful the two of them were invited to teach courses in Germany and Austria on how best to deploy the system. Two decades on and 4-4-2 has been overtaken once again, in some quarters, by the three-man defence, proving that in football’s tactical debate that there are few such things as a new idea.
Once again in his international career, against Switzerland, Hodgson will be expected to show that a young team of his is progressing. Rooney said that a point would be a good result which is undeniably the case, but his manager will also hope to show that his ideas are taking root.