24 january 2019
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Henry Winter

Alan Hansen




Wayne Rooney is at heart of England's problem

Wayne Rooney is at heart of England's problem

As positive as England were in an attacking sense against Italy in Manaus, Roy Hodgson’s team were ultimately let down by a structural problem – and it is one which suggested a mistake was made in omitting Ashley Cole from the squad.
There is no doubt that England were very impressive going forward – they displayed pace, with lightning breaks on the counter, and resembled the attacking play of Liverpool in the final weeks of last season. But it was clear from an early stage in the game that England need a better balance between defence and attack, and defensive shortcomings were the reason they lost the game.
One central factor in those defensive issues was the selection of Wayne Rooney on the left of midfield.
There is much debate about Rooney’s contribution in the final third, and it may yet lead to Hodgson having to consider leaving him out of the team, but his unfamiliarity with the left-sided role contributed hugely to the success Italy enjoyed down their right flank.
Wayne lacks the natural positional sense and defensive discipline required to play the left-sided role on the international stage and, while his effort and work-rate can never be questioned, he did not offer the protection that Leighton Baines needed at left-back. And this is where the absence of Cole exacerbates England’s problems on the left side of the pitch.
Baines has enjoyed a fantastic season at Everton and he is clearly a top player, but he is inexperienced at international level and a novice when it comes to tournament football. But with Italy targeting his side of pitch on a consistent basis, England needed Baines to communicate with Rooney and urge him to offer more protection to prevent the Italians from bombarding that flank.
The question mark over Baines is whether he feels experienced and established enough to instruct Rooney where to position himself.
There would be no such issue with Cole, a man who has made 100 appearances for his country and performed at countless major tournaments.
I saw Cole play for Chelsea at Liverpool towards the end of last season and, although he did not play as often as he would have hoped for Chelsea under Jose Mourinho, he had not lost much of his pace, and his experience enabled him to produce an impressive performance.
International football is all about experience and the knowledge of performing at the top level, and Cole would have made a difference. But Hodgson chose to overlook Cole in favour of Luke Shaw, so he must now resolve the structural problem in his team with the options he has available.
But the reality is that there is no obvious solution. Unfortunately for Hodgson, Rooney is at the heart of the problem because he simply cannot play in the left-sided role at this level.
A change should have been made at half-time against Italy because they were dominating England’s left flank in the first half, but because his team were enjoying success going forward, Hodgson did not alter the system. But Italy took advantage down the England left early in the second half to take the lead through Mario Balotelli and it was because Baines was caught out of position due to his anxiety over the lack of cover provided by Rooney.
I have always been a big admirer of Rooney, but England clearly need a better balance between defence and attack. To make improvements defensively, you have to make sacrifices further up the field and this makes Rooney vulnerable.
On the basis of the Italy game, you have to keep faith with Raheem Sterling because he produced a magnificent performance for such a young player. And with Daniel Sturridge scoring on a regular basis, it is impossible to consider leaving him out, even though he offers little in a defensive sense. When your centre-forward is scoring goals he has to play, regardless of the downsides to his game.
So you are faced with the prospect that Rooney might not make the starting line-up because England need to improve defensively and that left midfield position is the one which is causing Hodgson his biggest headache.
With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain unavailable due to injury, it is a dilemma for Hodgson. I would not advocate playing Baines and Shaw in tandem down the left, so he may have to look at James Milner if Rooney becomes the fall guy.
But with England facing a different challenge against Uruguay in Sao Paulo on Thursday, Hodgson may be inclined to go with the same again. Although Uruguay will have Luis Suárez back, their poor defensive display against Costa Rica will give Hodgson and his players encouragement that their attacking approach will reap a dividend in a game that is now crucial to hopes of qualification.
England could put six past the Uruguayans if they defend as poorly on Thursday, but football rarely works like that and Hodgson must go into the game with a better-balanced team. When only two of your midfielders have a defensive outlook, you are leaving yourself exposed to being picked off in the manner that Andrea Pirlo was able to do in Manaus.
Uruguay do not have a Pirlo, so that is one thing in England’s favour, but unless they find a way to defend as well as they attack, there are no guarantees that it will work out well for Hodgson and his team.



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