On Tuesday, England manager Roy Hodgson walked across the training pitch at St. George’s Park in Burton clutching a piece of paper, on which a telephoto lens showed he had written a series of names. Two, placed next to each other at the top of the page, were ringed: "Kane" and "Rooney." Suddenly the rumor was out, Harry Kane was going to start on Friday alongside Wayne Rooney in a front two for England against Lithuania (live, FOX Sports 2, FOX Sports Go, 3:45 p.m. ET).
Perhaps that says more about international weeks — when, without the constant flow of matches that usually keeps the footballing soap opera running, the slightest speck of a story can become a major talking point — than it does about Hodgson’s plans. It would be no great surprise if Kane were to make his debut on Friday. The 21-year-old striker is as in-form as any young England hopeful has perhaps ever been, his rise over the past six months meteoric. He began the season as a back-up to be used in the Capital One League Cup and the UEFA Europa League; the hat trick against Leicester with which he celebrated his call-up took his tally of goals for the season to 29.
But if the plan is to start Kane and Rooney together, it does raise intriguing questions about England’s shape. England played a 4-3-3 against Denmark in their final home friendly before the World Cup. They won 1-0 but the game was a grim, attritional battle. Hodgson was heavily criticized and by the time the FIFA World Cup began had opted for a more aggressive 4-2-3-1. Deficiencies at the back of midfield, though, unraveled England against both Italy and Uruguay and they lost both games 2-1.
Since the World Cup, Hodgson has preferred a 4-3-3 formation with a fluid attacking trident. Sometimes Raheem Sterling has operated on the right, Danny Welbeck on the left and Rooney through the middle. Sometimes they have switched flanks, and sometimes Sterling has played behind the other two. The result has been four wins out of four with just one goal conceded and, while England are on course for a simple qualification, the football has rarely been thrilling.
Only in Switzerland, when England struck twice on the counter in the second half, could England really be said to have played well. Part of the problem is the nature of the group. Given their pace in forward areas, England’s strength is on the counter – as that game in Basel demonstrated.
Against San Marino, Estonia and Slovenia, England faced teams that sat deep and kept men behind the ball. There has been little attack for England to counter, little space for them to use their pace. Paradoxically, this England team will probably play better against better opposition, or at least opposition that carries the game to them - as Scotland did in England’s 3-1 friendly victory in Glasgow in November. The consequence has been a series of attritional victories in qualification, something that is likely to continue against Lithuania on Friday.
If Kane plays in a 4-3-3, that almost certainly means Welbeck being dropped, which is tough on a player who has tended to play better for his country than his club. It also means either Rooney playing wide, which he is known not to like, or Sterling playing behind the front two in a 4-3-1-2, which risks depriving England of width against a side likely to pack men behind the ball.
That raises the possibility that Hodgson is considering a switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation which, against a side likely to be as defensive as Lithuania – particularly given they are missing winger Arvydas Novikovas through injury. Kane could then play centrally ahead of a three of Sterling, Rooney and Welbeck. The 4-3-3, though, will surely return for the friendly in Italy next week.
So far in qualifying, Hodgson has used a midfield trident of Jordan Henderson, Jack Wilshere and Fabian Delph. None are true holders, but the three offer a combination of attributes – pace, aggression and passing – that has so far provided a better platform than the pairing of Henderson and Gerrard did at the World Cup (admittedly against weaker opposition). Wilshere is injured, which makes the return to the squad of Michael Carrick all the more fascinating. He is a natural holding player and is comfortable dropping back between the two central defenders in a way that Wilshere simply isn’t.
With victory assumed – and even if Lithuania did pull off a shock win, the nature of qualifying means it would not place England’s hopes of making it to France in too much jeopardy – the key issues become at the front of the attack and the back of midfield and how Kane and Carrick may later the dynamic.