With no more warm up matches before the Euro 2016, England boss Roy Hodgson should have some grasp of his best team by now.
Unfortunately for him (and the team as a whole), last night’s poor showing against a Portugal side missing Cristiano Ronaldo and down to ten men for the second half will have raised some eyebrows of concern.
England are expected to do well in France this summer, but on the basis of the performance at Wembley it is set to be another tournament of frustration for Hodsgon’s side.
Central to the debate, as it always seems to be these days, is the presence of captain Wayne Rooney in the starting eleven.
There has been a certain level of desperation to accommodate Rooney at both England and Manchester United recently. The emergence of young stars Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford should have sidelined him at Old Trafford, and yet Louis van Gaal (and Rooney himself) have tried their hardest to convince the world that the 30 year old could be Paul Scholes reincarnate, a playmaker running the game from a deeper position.
Gentle applause greets every long, diagonal pass as the crowd and English media attempt to fool themselves into thinking that Rooney has been given a new lease of life in his career, while the latest 60 yard Hollywood pass that he has aimed for a teammate flies valiantly out for another throw in.
It’s as if being the polar opposite of Michael Carrick is something to strive for.
That same sense of hopeless optimism was on show for England last night, as Hodgson shoehorned his captain into a number ten role behind strikers Jamie Vardy and Harry Kane.
However, if ever there was a performance to convince the England boss that Rooney has no place in this team, then this was it.
Not only was his own performance deeply average, but he disrupted the on-form pair in front of him, Kane and Vardy looking massively out of sorts in a system that patently did not suit them. They were forced out wide in the absence of real wingers, and in the end, the front trio ended up with just two shots on the Portuguese goal between them.
— Sky Sports News HQ (@SkySportsNewsHQ) June 3, 2016
The formation and personnel choice to suit it were panned by many, with former England greats Alan Shearer and Gary Lineker taking particular umbrage with Hodgson’s misuse of his two biggest goal threats.
— Alan Shearer (@alanshearer) June 2, 2016
Also in this system width should be provided by fullbacks not the 2 strikers. Keep them together.
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) June 2, 2016
There was a worry that, following the athleticism and dynamism on show in the recent 3-2 win against world champions Germany, that England would struggle to accommodate Rooney in this team, and last night has shown that to be the case.
Wires were crossed, creativity was stifled, general confusion permeated the players – and all because Hodgson is terrified of leaving out the team’s most high profile player. There’s something inherently cowardly about decisions like that.
As per data collected by Sky Sports, Rooney’s passing rate was below 60% in the first half, with no real improvement before he was eventually hauled off for Adam Lallana with twelve minutes to go.
Hodgson can’t have it both ways here – if he insists on playing Rooney, then he can’t also play Kane, Vardy and Alli. There’s clearly a reluctance on the manager’s part to drop his influential captain, but in not doing so he is wasting the effectiveness of three players in the form of their lives.
If Hodgson realises Kane and Vardy either side of Rooney doesn’t work, then at least we will have salvaged something from this dire event
— Oliver Holt (@OllieHolt22) June 2, 2016
Hodgson has to ask himself if it is better to play in the manner we witnessed on Thursday, with Rooney forced into that team with all the panache and subtlety of tying to shove a potato through a garden hose, or is he better off throwing caution to the wind by allowing Kane, Vardy and Alli to play the way they have been playing for their clubs all season?
The overwhelming answer should be the latter option, but Hodgson seemingly can’t see the wood for the trees when it comes to his captain.
The worry going forward is how far does this Emperor’s New Clothes scenario have to go before somebody finally has the nerve to tell Wayne Rooney he can’t simply move further back and excel in a new position when he hasn’t got the legs and skills for his current one.
Are we, in the build up to the next World Cup in 2018, to endure the undignified spectacle of a 32-year-old Rooney trying his hardest to convince the pitying public that his best position is now as a marauding right back?
Hodgson bottled the decision not to play Rooney at the World Cup two years ago – to allow himself to be paralysed by fear and conservatism once again would be detrimental to England’s prospects at this tournament.