On a night when reigning World Cup champions Spain handed a debut to a Brazilian striker wholly unaccustomed to the tiki-taka tempo, you could hardly level the accusation at England that they are the only country still groping around for the right solution in attack, yet an unconvincing 1-0 friendly win over a desperately unadventurous Denmark at Wembley demonstrated Roy Hodgson's plans in this department remain firmly in a state of flux.
Although the England manager professed himself happy with the evening's work, highlighting, and rightly so, the contribution of a number of promising young players to his side's endeavours, England have now played their final match before they must name their World Cup squad and a coherent attacking approach has yet to be properly sketched out. Hodgson has time to delineate an overall strategy, but subtleties of tone will require some work.
Daniel Sturridge entered the match as the most in-form striker in the Premier League, scoring at a better rate than any of his contemporaries and with 10 goals in his last nine appearances, so it was rather a surprise to see Roy Hodgson utilise him in a wide position in the first half.
Sturridge, playing in the left-sided role usually allocated to Danny Welbeck in Hodgson's XI, linked up well at points and was denied by a point-blank save from man of the match Kasper Schmeichel, yet the wide role did not suit him: a case of lateral over-thinking on his manager's part, perhaps, even if Hodgson can hardly be hung out to dry for experimentation in a friendly.
It is a misnomer to suggest Sturridge is not cut out for the role per se - his best performances under Andre Villas-Boas at Chelsea during a purple patch at the beginning of the 2011-12 season came from a wide position - but is not for nothing that this ultra-confident young man has continually strived to perform in his favoured central birth throughout his career.
It did not help matters that Wayne Rooney, handed the striker's role, was unimpressive in a first half in which the mostly Liverpool supporting cast of Sturridge, Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard found their Scouse foil to be a poor stand-in for Luis Suarez. Off target with his shooting and rather subdued, this was not the same Rooney who scored seven times in qualifying.
Still, any nascent swell of opinion that accuses Hodgson of strangling the talents of his two best forwards would be premature. Notably, prior to Wednesday night, Sturridge had performed in his favoured central position in three of England's previous four matches, with Rooney often playing off him as a No. 10. Hodgson surely knows the best way to use these two players in tandem; if anything, Wednesday night will only have strengthened that conviction.
The problem was largely one of tactical deployment. England reverted to a 4-3-3 formation first seen in this form in a Euro 2012 qualifier away in Wales in March 2011 under Fabio Capello. On that occasion Rooney played wide to accommodate Darren Bent and though successful, England winning 2-0, it has seldom been used since: England ended the qualifying campaign in a more standard 4-2-3-1 which better suits the skill set of their two best attackers.
To use Sturridge as Hodgson did in the first half, and change the shape of the team to negate Rooney's best position, was certainly a case of trial and error on the England manager's part, but he corrected his mistake in the second half when removing Rooney and moving Sturridge to the middle of the park. The Liverpool man responded with a late headed winner from a delicious cross from Adam Lallana which validated his continued presence on the pitch.
It was a goal borne of a more cohesive second half from England, and one in which they looked more capable of opening up Denmark's dastardly two banks of four, whose overwhelming negativity and miserable existence made one question their enthusiasm for the game of football, and life and all its inherent beauty.
To suggest that England function better without Rooney would have been an accurate summation of the events of last night, but too reductive as a more sweeping conclusion. Clearly, England must recalibrate their attack somewhat having scored only once in their past three games, but Rooney remains their best player, for all his shortcomings. With 38 goals in 89 games even the mere hint that he should be dropped is fairly ridiculous.
What Hodgson must do, though, is restore Sturridge to the apex of the attack with Rooney stationed in behind him, the United man coming deep for the ball and trying to prise open opposition defences or be the conduit for a counter-attack, if he can quicken the tempo. Last night he found such tasks a struggle, and his manager admitted as much.
"In the first half, when Rooney played, we weren't as effective as we wanted to be," Hodgson said in his press conference. "We have got a lot of options (in attack). I think today in the first half we wanted those three players on the field - we wanted to see Rooney, Sturridge and Sterling. We have a lot of opportunities to work on that aspect of it and how they will gel together."
Danny Welbeck has been a consistent favourite of Hodgson on the left of the attack – with eight goals in 21 international appearances – but in Adam Lallana he now has a formidable challenger for that starting role. The Southampton midfielder has enjoyed an excellent campaign for his club and, following promising appearances against Chile and Germany, last night continued to look as at home in an England shirt as a badly sun-burnt beer belly.
Producing some intelligent touches and swerving in the box with menace, his cute turn and floated cross for Sturridge's goal was England's best moment in the whole 90 minutes. Hodgson admitted: “From the 60th minute onwards we showed some really good play and Adam Lallana made a big difference. Our passing was a bit too slow in the first half and in the second half we got behind opposition a bit more and created the chance that led to the goal."
Lallana can now safely assume he will be in the travelling party that goes to Brazil - along with Welbeck, who offers an entirely different kind of threat from the same position: an unpredictable, tricky alternative to Lallana''s more controlled elegance – yet there is a touch more uncertainty on the opposite side of the pitch.
Theo Walcott has the history for England, yet he is ruled out through injury. Andros Townsend finished the qualifying campaign as the man with possession of the shirt, thanks to two electric performances against Montenegro and Poland, yet his lack of action at Tottenham now counts against him. So, on Wednesday night, it was to the in-form Sterling whom England turned for a second cap.
Bursting with confidence thanks to his thrilling form with Liverpool, the winger ran at players and pulled off some tricks in a carefree manner - his joie de vivre a stark contrast to the staid performance of the visiting team. Sterling was named the sponsors' man of the match. Has he done enough to merit a place in Hodgson's squad? Probably, but Townsend, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Milner are his competition.
After a night that threw up a few questions, Hodgson was satisfied enough: "The pleasing thing for me is we are going to have four or five weeks before the first game in Brazil to work on our shape, to work on our game and I saw a lot of very positive things tonight."
But with key elements of his attack still undecided, goals at a premium and live debates over the shape England should take, Hodgson is left with much to ponder and no more games in which to experiment before he names his squad. England now have the nucleus of a good emerging team but the World Cup demands rather more than that: it demands a cognitive approach.
As Denmark coach Morten Olsen said with a cheeky grin as he departed the press conference room in Wembley's bowels: “I wish you good luck in the World Cup – you need it!”
Tom Adams at Wembley - @tomEurosport
- Sports & Recreation
- Roy Hodgson
- Wayne Rooney
- Daniel Sturridge
- Adam Lallana