No longer must Wayne Rooney be a victim of his own versatility. England’s most potent attacker, used as his country’s main striker against Chile on Friday, must be allowed to make as well as take goals from the No. 10 role just off the front.
It’s the key to England’s prospects in the World Cup. Only if Rooney is at his most effective will Roy Hodgson’s team threaten the best in Brazil next summer. And the coach got it right when he said some months ago that No. 10 is the Manchester United star’s ideal role. And that’s why no performance will be more closely scrutinized at Wembley on Tuesday than that of Daniel Sturridge.
For Sturridge is the great hope at No. 9. He missed the 2-0 defeat by Chile but will be back after resting an injury for the second of the post-qualification friendlies against England’s old rivals Germany. For me it’s the England dream team up front, despite respected critic Alan Hansen’s verdict in today’s Daily Telegraph that Sturridge is not the "line-leading centre-forward" that Rooney needs.
According to Hansen, Rooney’s club partner Robin van Persie fits that description better than Sturridge. But the recently retired Michael Owen was hardly a line-leader, and Hansen reckons he worked well with Rooney. So why not Sturridge, whose Liverpool partnership with Luis Suarez has been the scoring sensation of the Premier League so far?
Hodgson came off the training field today to confirm that Sturridge and Rooney would figure against the Germans. Training was open to the media and the first team lined up thus, in 4-2-3-1 formation: Joe Hart; Kyle Walker, Phil Jagielka, Chris Smalling, Ashley Cole; Steven Gerrard, Tom Cleverley; Andros Townsend, Rooney, Adam Lallana; Sturridge.
This answered a lot of questions. Let’s take them in order of listing. One, Hodgson’s keeping faith in Hart – no surprise there, despite a decent debut by Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster against Chile. Two, Walker has edged in front of Glen Johnson at right-back. Three, Gary Cahill’s dismal display against Chile has convinced Hodgson he must consider Smalling alongside the experience of Phil Jagielka.
Joe Hart might not be getting club starts, but he’s No. 1 for England. (Photo: Christopher Lee/Getty)
Hodgson always planned to field his tried and tested men against the Germans, so Gerrard’s return was a no-brainer, and the presence of Cleverly alongside him is more than anything else a reflection of his promise to Arsene Wenger that Jack Wilshere would start only one of the two games.
Answer four is in the next line of the midfield. Hodgson has seen enough of Lallana – not just on his international debut against the Chileans, but for the Southampton side doing so well under coach Mauricio Pochettino – to encourage the thought that he can challenge the likes of Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck, both currently injured, in the wide attacking positions.
But Sturridge holds the key to a lot. Having burst on the scene, and pleased Hodgson with his performances in the Wembley victories over Montenegro and Poland that sealed England’s qualification, he can give the team that vital cutting edge and let Rooney concentrate on creation, drawing together the threads of the attack as, say, Mesut Ozil tends to do for Germany.
Ozil will be missing Tuesday as coach Joachim Low continues to explore the possibilities of Mario Gotze, the little magician who moved from Borussia Dortmund to Bayern Munich in the summer; the Germans appear almost spoiled for choice in attacking midfield with Thomas Muller and Marco Reus also in contention. But England are not so lavishly endowed that Hodgson can afford to employ Rooney as a sort of golden utility player (as United sometimes did in Sir Alex Ferguson’s time but not, so far, that of Moyes).
So there was relief when Hodgson declared that Sturridge’s early departure from the training match was merely in order to give a run to Lallana’s Southampton colleague Rickie Lambert. Alongside the coach at England’s country-house hotel north of London was captain Gerrard, who said of the striker with whom he shares the Anfield dressing-room: ‘’The stage is set for Daniel to become a top-class footballer. People are taking about him and Wayne and the difference is that Wayne has been there and done it – now it’s up to Daniel to show he can reach the same level.’’
It’s been a long road to the top for Sturridge, who was offloaded by Manchester City before Chelsea sold him to Liverpool, and Gerrard said: ‘’I was surprised when Chelsea let him go, but since working with him closely I’ve become a huge fan.’’
The atmosphere was distinctly upbeat — any visit by the Germans creates the sort of derby atmosphere players love – and it’s clearly helped Hodgson and his men to get over the disappointment of the performance against Chile. This, with Rooney in his rightful place and a strengthened defence, is a better-looking team than Friday’s. A good display and England can go into winter hibernation feeling that they are back on the right lines.