England should forget about hotel kitchens, focus on what matters

LONDON —  

The usual rituals are being observed by England’s players and media. The players are promising to do their best and the press have dug up some dirt on the surroundings the Three Lions will encounter in Brazil.

"Dead Dog Beach" — that was the classic. Before Ron Greenwood’s England settled into a hotel on the Basque north coast of Spain to prepare for the 1982 World Cup, an enterprising photographer found the unfortunate animal’s corpse washed up on the adjacent sand.

It became the unofficial symbol of the campaign, which never truly acquired much life. But the tradition has been revived a few times and is certainly evident in the build-up to England’s stay in Rio de Janeiro.

This time the image was harder to capture, for no happy snapper happened to be on hand as health inspectors pounced on the hotel facing San Conrado beach where England will be based throughout their stay at the forthcoming tournament — and took away samples of out-of-date food.

Not that it really matters any more than the location of the dog’s final resting place, for the England party will have people with them to arrange and supervise their entire intake of food and drink. It’s just part of the background. And, if it hadn’t happened, someone would have had to make something up.

MONEY ISN'T EVERYTHING

This, then, is a fairly routine lull before the storm. It’s the time when, the club season having finished, national coaches like Roy Hodgson get to do their work.

But most is done behind the generally closed doors of the training field — or fields, for England have already trained on the Algarve coast of Portugal, at Watford, near London, and the national soccer center about 150 miles to the north and will shortly take their routines to Miami — so there’s not a great deal for the pundits to talk about.

The newspaper space this frees up is filled with another part of the ritual: formation questions. Every few days, a player or two is paraded before the media to tell us how keen they are to do well in the World Cup and how they’ve never known a better mood in a camp.

It’s easy for Hodgson’s men, at least those like captain Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney who remember South Africa under Fabio Capello, for the Italian kept things too austere while messing around with tactics and personnel in the last of the pre-tournament friendlies.

The Englishman seems to have handled the mood of his compatriots with skill. But we’ll see. They are about to take the field in earnest, getting ready for a Wembley send-off against Peru on Friday night (live, FOX Sports 2, 3 p.m. ET). In this, we may judge if they can walk like they talk.

Since Tuesday, they have been doing the stuff that Hodgson is best at. In Portugal, having enjoyed a week or more of post-season rest, they got themselves fit. But the return to the national center, St. George’s Park, signalled the start of earnest work on patterns of play.

These drills are at the heart of Hodgson’s style as a coach and we shall have a better idea of how England will look in Brazil after the initial three days of his close tutelage. And nothing will be more closely monitored than the relationship between Rooney and Daniel Sturridge.

The most recent friendly — also at Wembley, against Denmark in March — was not kind to Rooney. In the sense that, while the Manchester United attacker didn’t perform especially badly, he failed to reach the standard of inspiration to which the Liverpool players around him were accustomed.

In other words, he was no Luis Suarez. The likes of Sturridge, Gerrard, Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson couldn’t revolve around the United striker, joyously feeding off him, as Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers have been taught to do.

The Peruvians will be presented with a work in progress. More will have to be done in the heat of Florida, which Hodgson will hope to find more intense than an unseasonally cool Algarve. In Miami, there will be friendlies against Ecuador and Honduras and the conditions should more closely resemble those to be expected in Manaus when England begins their World Cup campaign against Italy.

Other aspects of the team matter, of course. But the reward of honing its cutting edge will be considerable, for an alliance of prime Rooney with the pace and predatory instincts of Sturridge and Sterling would perturb Italy and the Uruguayans, who are sweating on Suarez’s fitness. So let’s take a look at how they might shape up — and forget about those hotel kitchens.