England have greater concerns than jungle heat

The Rio Report

View gallery

The biggest cheer of England’s functional but ultimately tepid 3-0 win over a young Peru side came on 82 minutes, when a paper aeroplane hit a Peru player on the head.

Those watching for professional reasons were distracted by, you know, the ball, but the paying customers had long lost interest in a pedestrian but necessary encounter.

It was perhaps ill-advised for Wembley Stadium to leave so many neatly foldable pieces of reinforced paper in the hands of the bored and easily amused. Fans engaged in thoroughly unseemly Mexican waves when not ducking and diving to avoid the makeshift x-wings raining from the upper tiers.

Still, sometimes you have to make your own fun. The placid Friday night was notable for its good humour, a pleasant atmosphere ordinarily notable in its absence at England matches, which are mostly terse, moody affairs.

The contemporary England fan has had the bar lowered by years of grim disappointment. On Friday most seemed content just to see a bit of football after a couple of weeks without the game. In Brazil, they will be happy just to be there.

While the match itself was low on adrenaline, it fit a specific brief: to test England’s new system in front of a (surprisingly) packed stadium ahead of their first match in a fortnight.


As Jack Wilshere explained earlier in the week, England’s training work has been very much tailored to replicating the conditions in Manaus, where they face Italy in a sweltering opener on June 14.

There is nothing new in this. Even Paul Gascoigne has spoken of unusual methods to crank up the literal heat ahead of major tournaments.

What is interesting about the preparations this time is that Roy Hodgson has tweaked the formation, system and style of play. The central midfielders sit deep, the frontline is fluid but disciplined, the speed of passing and nature of pressing slower, more considered, more ‘continental’. How ironic at a time when a national panic of regressive jingoism is rearing its head.

England have historically been one dimensional at international tournaments, plodding and direct, overly reliant on a pace usually stunted by the relatively genteel nature of close-season summer football. The equivalent of a heavyweight slugger trying to punch his way out of a situation when, sometimes, you gotta dance.

Hodgson, the wily travelled old Europhile that he is, will be acutely aware that those searing, Liverpool-style counter attacks will flounder, particularly in their first match against Italy, played in the beastly cauldron of Manaus.

In general, World Cups are slower, cagier affairs than the club game. England’s blood-and-thunder approach is amusing enough at times but ultimately becomes an exercise in futility as successions of teams find themselves blowing out of their eyeballs by the knockout stage.

And the Amazon is no place to play football. Even the locals fear and respect the sprawling, swamping jungle conditions.

Therefore, a somewhat more conservative, restrained approach is a good one. It may seem tepid and tiresome on a cool night in North West London, but – come Brazil – the players will reap the rewards.

That is why Daniel Welbeck was started ahead of the brilliant but breakneck Raheem Sterling; Welbeck is not as exciting a player, but he is disciplined and experienced, and crucially has been a big-game man for England in the past. Expect Sterling to be trusted in later group matches, and perhaps unleashed from the bench against Italy, when the full-backs are crawling down the touchline. But Welbeck is ahead of the Liverpool winger for the opener, because of his ability to sweat the small stuff.

And sweat they will, in the humid, Equatorial conditions in Manaus.

Short of playing the game wrapped in bin liners, whatever they did on a mild Friday night in North West London will not feel the same in the sweltering Amazon. That is another variable, which will be properly tested in their Miami training camp and low-key friendlies.

England seemed relatively comfortable in such a system, but the opposition was weak, and – at times –some players had a tendency to pass longer than preferable.

However, Italy will suffer like England in Manaus, so in a sense the disadvantage is shared.

View gallery

Of greater concern to Hodgson should be the shaky defensive pairing of Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka. That both scored from set-pieces should not paper the cracks of an uneasy partnership, although it is comforting to see England use their physical attributes at the dead ball again.

The centre-backs are fine players but were caught for positioning and pace no less than four times, with Joe Hart to the rescue on each occasion. Better teams – and everyone faced in Brazil is superior to Peru – will punish them. Cahill could also have easily given away a second-half penalty and, assuming he is Hodgson’s number 1 centre back, he must improve his concentration.

Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are hardly the most popular of England players, due to their club travails this season, but thanks to superior mobility one should start alongside Cahill, fitness permitting. Smalling in particular has good ability to cover and, with England ill-advised to rely on Hart’s excellence at one-on-ones, he may return.

Central defence was traditionally England’s strongest area; these days it is one of the weakest.

At least they have options in midfield – Sterling, Ross Barkley and Jack Wilshere all showed flashes of promise with the ball, making Hodgson less reliant on his first-choice players in a tournament where fatigue management will play a huge part.

And Adam Lallana has, with Sterling, been a revelation; the Southampton man's clever, unhurried use of the ball and uncanny knack of knowing what to do with it at the right time makes him a shoo-in for Manaus. He is one of the few English players who can hold a candle to the Spanish in possession, and in Brazil that will be essential. And now we know that Daniel Sturridge can shine for England, so long as deployed through the middle.

A match that appeared to be rather pointless was ultimately anything but. There are learnings, positive and negative, and time to work and correct them. And, with the win not entirely convincing, at least Hodgson’s expectation management has not been compromised.

By Reda Maher at Wembley Stadium – on Twitter @Reda_Eurosport

View comments (55)