Rather than convince Roy Hodgson or the watching public of England’s best XI for their forthcoming Euros opener, it’s fair to say the Three Lions’ final friendly against Portugal raised more queries than it provided answers.
The slightly disjointed display from an England side which accommodated Wayne Rooney, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy in a starting line-up for the first time, must have steered Hodgson’s thinking more decisively though.
The script was followed to some degree. England recorded a third successive victory in their trio of warm-up games and winning is a habit that must be celebrated, regardless of style, ahead of a major tournament.
However, with Portugal reduced to 10 men so early in the game, and the Three Lions’ triumvirate of centre-forwards struggling in unnatural habitats, a reconfiguration of his plans is required for Hodgson before Saturday’s Russia test to begin Group B.
Having shown his tactical versatility in switching between a 4-4-2 diamond and a 4-3-3 over the course of qualification and the final preparations for France, the question on everyone’s lips is what does England’s manager now regards as Plan A?
Here’s a little reminder of the 23 men he has to select from:
The Rooney, Vardy, Kane conundrum
England’s record scorer, the Premier League’s most prolific and the joint-second most fruitful striker in the English top flight was (and still is) a salivating prospect on paper.
In reality, though, the three players did not click on their sole outing to date. Rooney was supposedly forming the tip of the diamond midfield, tucked behind Kane and Vardy. Although the potential potency of the latter pair was voided by their orders to pull out wide and aid in defensive duties, instead of prowling the penalty area.
If anything, it was more like a 4-3-3 at times with Rooney the furthest forward centrally and Vardy in particular cutting a frustrated figure, marooned on the left. The Leicester ace was often the perpetrator of niggling fouls when feeding off scraps, instead of swooping in behind Portugal’s defence in the manner that helped the Foxes to their fairytale title triumph.
It seems that if Hodgson wishes to play Kane and Vardy in tandem it must be within a different system than the diamond. Arguably England’s best performance across the three most recent friendlies was the 2-1 win over Turkey, where Vardy was asked to fulfil the left side of a three-pronged attack, albeit with more room to manoeuvre and less defensive obligations.
The insurance offered by the three-man midfield behind him meant the former Halifax Town striker could stay high up the pitch and sure enough he grabbed his third international goal in the second half, to follow his Tottenham counterpart’s opener.
In Eric Dier, England have finally found a defensive midfielder, diligent enough to patrol in front of the backline and barring injury the Tottenham man is a dead cert to be the deepest lying in any midfield setup.
There are a few players who did their claims no harm against Portugal despite not starting either. The two main ones to make an impression were Jack Wilshere and Raheem Sterling.
Wilshere’s introduction with 25 minutes to go invigorated England’s performance, with the Arsenal man able to get the Three Lions on the front foot.
Those who question his fitness, cannot deny Wilshere’s skill and purpose with the ball are qualities England badly need in central areas.
Judging by this tweet, BBC pundit Stan Collymore is clearly a fan of the Arsenal midfielder.
This is why Wilshere is almost deified in some quarters. An Englishman with a football brain who can manipulate the ball and keep it.
— Stan Collymore (@StanCollymore) June 2, 2016
Meanwhile, following a bright display on the right of England’s attack against the Turks, Sterling furthered his case for inclusion against Russia with an eye-catching cameo versus Portugal. The Manchester City man provided more incision from the left flank than the Three Lions had mustered all evening, including a delightful, whipped cross for the goal.
If Wilshere doesn’t now start in England’s opener, it will be interesting to see who has done enough to supplant him.
The unfortunate James Milner had a night to forget on the right of the diamond and Dele Alli’s recent influence was curtailed somewhat on the opposite side. Although, the Spurs maestro did grow in influence when he appeared as part of a midfield three once Hodgson had overseen the transition to 4-3-3 for the final quarter of the match.
Adam Lallana also gave the Three Lions attack some creativity when he was introduced with 12 minutes remaining.
This is how England finished the match:
What formation should England go with?
The diamond formation that Hodgson deployed to great effect during qualification for Euro 2016 has been exposed somewhat when the standard of opposition has risen in the final few games, especially against Portugal.
The narrow nature of the formation perhaps places too much emphasis on dragging the front two out wide to help win the ball back, leaving the opposing centre-halves in a lap of luxury.
It’s not to say it couldn’t work, but finding a natural place for Rooney within the system probably means he plays up front at the expense of Vardy. The skipper bounding on into the space the front pair should have been occupying from the apex of the diamond isn’t viable on the evidence.
This represents the preferred formation of many a Premier League club, such as Tottenham’s significant England contingent are used to. Nevertheless, it’s a arrangement that holds bitter memories for Hodgson.
Since his side were prematurely eliminated from the last World Cup, England’s boss has understandably veered away from it and results dictate that was a smart move. With their campaign about to launch, a reversion to this tactic seems highly improbable.
This has to be the ace in England’s formational pack. To Hodgson and his players’ enormous credit, world champions Germany and Euro favourites France were defeated in the build up to this summer’s tournament when he set up this way.
The only genuine sticking point once again is the role he grants Rooney, or possibly, doesn’t. The victory in Berlin was achieved in his absence and many fans believe the Manchester United man should be jettisoned.
However, this is unlikely to wash with his manager. Rooney is Hodgson’s captain and if he plays then he may just fit in to the team best in an even deeper role.
Could this be the starting line-up against Russia?
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.