Age or experience? Form or potential talent? And, perhaps most importantly, where to play Wayne Rooney?
Injury has robbed Rob Hodgson of some of his options against Italy, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out and Danny Welbeck a doubt, but the area behind the lone forward looks to be the most hotly contested of all England’s positions.
Hodgson has admitted in the run up to the game that he is toying with the idea of playing Raheem Sterling in the central role behind Daniel Sturridge, leaving Rooney on the left and Adam Lallana likely to start on the right if Welbeck is out.
Liverpool winger Sterling has impressed in the No. 10 role at club level this season, but with Rooney a seasoned international and Sterling more at home in a wide role should he really be handed the responsibility of leading the team’s forward charge?
Out of Rooney and Sterling, the latter is certainly the man in form. Playing for a Liverpool side built around supplying Sturridge and Luis Suarez, Sterling still netted six league goals in 2014 (above).
It is easy to get carried away with Sterling’s form and Rooney’s perceived lack of it, after all Rooney scored eight goals in 13 games in 2014 for Manchester United, but Sterling arrives at the tournament full of confidence and without the millstone of expectation and prior disappointment hanging around his neck.
Rooney has functioned well on the left for United in the past, albeit with well-reported grumblings, and having Sterling as the No. 10 around whom the side is built could help him concentrate on the matter at hand rather than allowing himself to become wound up by the added pressure of being the only man whom England look to in central areas.
As a tactic for a specific game, Sterling central and Rooney from the left could also work well in hampering some of Italy’s threat. That the Italian’s are able on the ball is well known, while reams of column inches have been filled worrying over the abilities of the seemingly ageless Andrea Pirlo.
A man who can orchestrate matches so that they are played at his tempo, Pirlo was afforded time and space to run the show when England met Italy two years ago. Rooney was the man tasked with shadowing Pirlo then, but was second to everything.
Rooney’s work-rate is famed, but overstated. Picking the ball up deep or making a tackle in the left back position may be eye-catching, but it is not exactly tactically disciplined and at Euro 2012 he could get nowhere near to Pirlo.
Think of Pirlo and Rooney going head to head two years on and not much has changed. Should Rooney start centrally, then it is easy to imagine a wilting, sunburnt Englishman reaching areas a few seconds after Pirlo has vacated it.
Sterling has made and attempted more tackles per 90 minutes than Rooney this season, hassling opponents into mistakes in Liverpool’s pressing game.
Reprising his club role for England could see him press Pirlo in a manner Rooney is not likely to and could be a better option for Hodgson.
Sterling can also bring some of Liverpool’s attacking vigour to England’s attack. Two pacey attackers are already likely to be missing in Welbeck and Oxlade-Chamberlain, and the pace of the England attack now rests with Sterling and Sturridge.
Roaming from central will give Sterling, who completed 92 take-ons last season, the best opportunity to pick the ball up and run at Italy.
If he does so, then he can exploit Pirlo’s age and lackadaisical approach. The Italian metronome averaged fewer tackles than any of the other likely midfield starters last season, with just 1.13 per 90 minutes played.
Combined with Sterling’s speed on the counter attack, a match up between Pirlo and Sterling is an interesting proposition. While Rooney could be out thought by the Italian, who relies upon experience and his ability to read the game, if Sterling can isolate him on the counter attack then there is only one winner.
Rooney is still one of England’s best players, despite the hysteria surrounding his form, but Sterling’s end of season form for Liverpool, combined with the need to shut down and attack Pirlo, means he should be the number 10 for England on Saturday.
It would be a risk for Hodgson, but may well be one worth taking.
- Sports & Recreation
- Wayne Rooney
- Raheem Sterling
- Andrea Pirlo