I think there’s a bigger picture beyond the result – or even the performance – in getting the players together before the World Cup.
Roy Hodgson is meticulous in his planning and everything since he announced the squad will be geared towards getting his team somewhere near its peak at the first game of the tournament.
There are a few factors which make these games useful.
Firstly, it’s important to relieve the boredom – footballers want to play matches, enjoy the big crowd, test themselves and perhaps prove a point.
But the players’ personal concerns are secondary. What is most important about these friendlies is that the manager is able to get some match practice when most of them will have been inactive for several weeks after the end of the season.
An additional factor is that matches more than training allow players to gel as a unit; not just the first XI, but those coming into the game need to get to know each other.
This holds particularly when you have a lot of new, young players in the squad, which England do. And I think the players will be looking forward to that, especially with the technical ability in this new-look group.
I don’t think anyone will be playing themselves into the starting XI. I imagine that, regardless of what he says, Roy knows his starting line-up.
He’s not a man who leaves things to chance, even though he’s said there could be up to three places up for grabs. Actually, his words were about knowing eight or nine of his starting XI, but I think he already knows that.
He will know exactly what each player offers respective to the game they are about to play: he will have a plan for the Italy game, one for the Uruguay clash and one for Costa Rica. They may be slightly different, but I would imagine that he has his men in mind, and the replacements in case of injury or suspension.
Roy’s only real variable is how his players cope with the altitude and the humidity.
Jack Wilshere was talking about the specific preparation England are doing to acclimatise with the conditions, but they will not really know what it’s like until they get out there.
Back in 1986, we prepared back in Denmark wearing masks to replicate what was happening in Mexico, but we landed there and got the shock of our lives.
The same will be for England when the land in Manaus. It will initially overwhelm them. How quickly will they get used to it after their arrival? You can prepare for Uruguay’s style by playing Peru, but there are two variables they can only try to accommodate: the unpredictability of Luis Suarez, and how they react to the Amazonian conditions against Italy. And Costa Rica, to an extent, are an unknown.
Unpredictability is quite nice though – the unknown is one of the reasons we love football so much.
Speaking of the unknown, we have no idea how Ross Barkley will step up. I have a feeling that he is not in Roy’s first XI, but if anyone is going to play his way into it, Ross is.
He could be one of those bonuses you get at tournaments, or he could have no impact at all. It’s been a while since England had a player like that, not since Wayne Rooney in 2004 before his injury. It would be wonderful if Barkley could do a similar thing, as he clearly has the ability, the X-factor.
But how does Roy see it? Maybe he sees the more consistent Adam Lallana in that no.10 role, particularly given Barkley’s inconsistency means he is yet to show his full ability for England.
Lallana has experience, he knows when to make runs and when to hold; when to shoot and when to pass. Barkley is still a little bit off the cuff, but boy is he exciting.
I think Barkley should start against Peru, regardless of whether Roy has him in mind for the Italy game. He is a bit of a wildcard, so you have to try and give him a chance. By not playing him you’re not helping him.
And whatever people say, international football is different. It’s hard to put a finger on why, but it’s played in a different way; it’s more tactical, even than the club game in the respective counties.
You have less time to prepare yourself for, say, a direct attacking style, so teams tend to set up more conservatively; as a result it is slower, more cautious, and not just for Latin teams but nations who have different attributes. Germany are an exception – probably because everyone buys into the national team being bigger than the Bundesliga – while Chile in 2010 were under that lunatic Marcelo Bielsa and they were an exception, but it’s unusual.
England can learn from that. Despite the best efforts of media and patriotic fans, it plays second fiddle to the Premier League. They need to do what Germany do and find a ‘club feel’.
Paul Scholes said that England should copy Liverpool; I agree that if you’re going to use Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge – and get the best out of them – you have to play them together. But to get the best out of them you need to play that high-tempo game. Is that possible in Brazil, both with the nature of international football and with the conditions? Possibly not.
It would be a shame if they couldn’t get a similar level of performance for England as they do for Liverpool.
But it will be very difficult to do so and I think Roy knows that and will pick his team accordingly. Still, it would still make sense to use Henderson for his ability to cover ground with greater mobility than Lampard and Wilshere; Sturridge will need to be played centrally as he has such an impact in his preferred position.
You’ve got to be careful that you don’t try and fit square pegs in round holes just for sake of form. Sturridge would in my view be better used from the bench than out wide; but would it affect his performances to be out of the team?
These are all questions for Roy to ask himself; that, and not the result against Peru, is what really matters. The worst thing that can happen is England winning 5-0. There are talented young players but they are untested and need to keep their feet on ground – any raised expectations would be counter productive.
- Sports & Recreation