Can England’s speed merchants surprise Italy in Manaus?

MANAUS, BRAZIL —

On the opening day of England’s World Cup campaign in 1982, a remarkable bundle of energy and adventure by the name of Bryan Robson burst through the French defense to score a goal that remains the earliest in the tournament’s history.

It was timed at just 27 seconds and today a great body of critical and public opinion is willing the national team to take the same approach to its inaugural game against Italy.

Never mind the heat and humidity, the argument goes — it’s the same for both teams — let England’s attackers, with the advantages of youth and speed that define several of them, go at the Italian rearguard from the off, and let the great Italian midfielder orchestrator Andre Pirlo see how he likes looking over his shoulder.

It’s a very tempting way to look at things, and there’s no doubt that England coach Roy Hodgson, as tactically conservative as he is held to be, will have considered it. After all, he chose the 19-year-old flier Raheem Sterling to join Liverpool club-mate Daniel Sturridge in the squad. He may even have already decided to order his men forward from the start, seize the moment in the manner of Robson.

Robson was, in many ways, the archetypal English soccer player. When he faced the French that day in Bilbao, Spain, he was coming to his peak. He had joined Manchester United from West Bromwich Albion for a British record transfer fee — just $2.3 million, believe it or not — and was tipped for greatness.

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Injury, in the end, was to keep him just short of that. Only just. After scoring twice in a 3-1 victory over France — itself a great team in the making, one that, with Michel Platini at his majestic best, would win the European Championship on home soil two years later — he helped England to top its group but fitness problems then hampered him and Ron Greenwood’s team fell short of the semi-finals.

So Robson didn’t quite become England’s answer to Platini (even though he will always be revered at Old Trafford). But the English philosophy he epitomized then still lives and that’s obvious as Hodgson is implored to choose a high-tempo game against the Italians, to let the likes of Sturridge and Sterling endeavor to seize the moment as Robson did those 32 years ago.

It would certainly take the pressure off England if they were to win a game that so many observers have down for a tie. They could then play with relative freedom in the second game against Uruguay in Sao Paulo, knowing that there was still the assurance of an opportunity to take three points from Costa Rica in Belo Horizonte.

And this time Hodgson seems to have a considerably more potent clutch of attackers than was the case two years ago, early in his time of charge, when England met Italy in the European Championship and were passed off the park by Pirlo; they took the game to penalties, but Italy justly prevailed.

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Hodgson doesn’t want another game like that — and insists that he has both the individuals and team structure, honed in nearly a month of hands-on preparation in places as diverse as Portugal’s Algarve, the English national soccer center near Burton upon Trent and Miami, Florida, to give Italy a very different contest in the sweaty heat of the Brazil’s Amazon region.

Of course, it must be a balanced strategy and one of England’s likely attackers, Danny Welbeck, could have a vital defensive role, helping midfielder Jordan Henderson to break up the Italians’ creative axis of Pirlo and Paris Saint-Germain’s Marco Verratti.

If this works and Sterling can run at the Italians, not only forcing them back but creating space for Wayne Rooney.

Yes, for Rooney to be mentioned almost as an afterthought says a lot for the apparent wealth of attacking talent available to Hodgson. True, the Manchester United man is due a decent international tournament — he’s not starred at one since bursting on the 2004 European Championship at the age of 18 — but his form with United last season, if not quite vintage, brought him plenty of goals in what was, by Old Trafford standards, a season of struggle.

So England has to be bold at some stage in Manaus — if not from the start, Robson-style, then later in the game when defensive legs begin to tire, as inevitably they will in the conditions. Hodgson would himself come under pressure if the team performed too meekly. But I think we’ll find it’s all academic. After all, he’s an Englishman too and he’s picked a squad to win games.

If he can find a balanced formula that restricts Pirlo while freeing his speed merchants, a turning point in his regime may arrive. As a Hodgson fan of long standing, I fancy it might happen — so it’s England to win the rumble in the jungle.