In a predictably drab affair in front of a record-low crowd, England limped their way to a 1-0 victory over Norway, ranked 53th in the world by FIFA, yesterday evening.
This Norway side – much like England – has been dubbed the worst for generations, yet it took a converted penalty from Wayne Rooney to secure the Three Lions a win.
Improvement will be needed before Roy Hodgson’s side take on Switzerland next Monday, in their first European Championship qualifier of the new international season.
And just in case the under-fire England gaffer needs some foundations to start from, here’s a look at the FIVE things we learned from the national team’s subdued win over the Norwegians.
Yesterday evening, Wembley played host to just over 40,000 England fans, making it the worst crowd since England’s stadium was rebuilt in 2007, whilst the ITV coverage received nearly half the viewers of BBC cooking show The Great British Bake Off.
The atmosphere was subdued but England have suffered more uncomfortable nights before – like when Wayne Rooney was booed off and subsequently ranted into a television camera after the Three Lions drew with Algeria at the 2010 World Cup:
But in a sense, this response was considerably worse – it wasn’t one of disappointment or anger, more simply and more dangerously, a complete lack of interest. Roy Hodgson admitted public apathy was a major issue before the Norway friendly and the uninspiring result, combined with a stale performance, certainly won’t have improved matters.
The most detrimental characteristic of the British press is the inability to remain realistic whenever the England team is graced by an impressive performance from a young player.
A couple of years ago, Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere was dubbed the future of the national side, but top quality performances for club and country have been hard to come by since. And I’m sure we all remember the sudden rise, followed by the inevitable fall, of Spurs winger Andros Townsend, after netting this belter against Montenegro in a World Cup qualifier:
But overlooking the impeccable form of Raheem Sterling would be an equally fatal crime. The Liverpool youngster emerged as a vital player for his club at the end of last season, netting ten times in all competitions and playing a crucial role at the tip of midfield in the Reds’ 15-game unbeaten run.
And after leaving the World Cup as arguably the only England player with his reputation enhanced, Sterling has carried his performances into the current Premier League campaign. He stole the show from Liverpool debutant Mario Balotelli against Tottenham at the weekend, as shown below:
Here’s a look at Sterling’s highlights from the White Hart Lane clash:
In almost identical fashion, despite Wayne Rooney claiming the only goal against Norway in his first outing as permanent captain, it was the teenager who once again grabbed the limelight from more established names, making a near-incredible seven key passes:
There was plenty of young talent on display for England last night – the average age of the starting XI was just 22 – but it was Sterling who stood out, head and shoulders above the rest, despite being the joint-youngest player in the entire squad at age 19.
If Roy Hodgson is serious about reinventing the Three Lions from the ground up, the team must be centred around Sterling. His consistency, output and improvement has been remarkable over the last 18 months and he appears ready for more responsibility in the national side.
What kind of team are England? Are we a counter-attacking side? A high-pressing side? A defensive side? An attacking side? A clinical side?
In the past England had a clear identity – direct yet precise going forward, dogged defensively and potent from set pieces, echoing many of the core characteristics of the Premier League.
Yet, throughout the Hodgson era, the Three Lions have perpetually struggled to find a philosophy that suits them best. First we attempted to reinvent ourselves as Spain, and now there are calls to follow the German model as closely as possible.
Well, the Norway result provided no clear answers – in fact, it threw up a few more questions. As viewable below, the Three Lions lined up in a 4-4-2, a formation you’d expect the majority of our players to feel incredibly comfortable in:
But once again, it felt unfamiliar and clear-cut goalscoring opportunities were hard to come by. As shown below, we finished the friendly with just two shots on target:
And it’s equally telling that England’s only goal of the evening came from the penalty spot.
4-2-3-1 failed spectacularly at the World Cup and 4-4-2 produced little positives against the Norwegians, so where does Hodgson turn from here?
With England centurions Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard now retired from the international scene, it seems more than likely Jordan Henderson will be at the heart of the national team’s midfield for the many years to come. Make of that what you will.
But thus far in his 14-game Three Lions career, the Liverpool star has been worryingly misused by Roy Hodgson. At Brazil 2014, he was the dog on a leash next to Steven Gerrard, putting in work-rate and energy but rarely contributing on the ball.
That was the same role he took up against Norway yesterday evening, with the more creative work going to Jack Wilshere. That’s more than understandable, considering both players’ individual strengths and the need to find balance in midfield.
But the 24 year-old is not a holding midfielder – he’s a box-to-box and should be used in that capacity. Take a look at his statistics from last season:
Equally proficient, if not more so, in attack as in defence, and overlooking Henderson’s dynamic athleticism for the sake of greater protection at the back is wasting his greatest attributes as a footballer.
If he’s to remain in England’s midfield for the next decade, we may as well start playing to the Liverpool hot-shot’s strengths now. Hodgson needs to fine-tune Henderson’s role to get the best out of him.
It was meant to be a great night for Wayne Rooney, leading his country out for the first time as official England captain. And indeed, having scored the only goal of the evening, the immediate assumption would be that the Manchester United forward put in a solid performance.
But in truth, the 28 year-old was largely ineffective throughout, his link play with Daniel Sturridge leaving a lot to be desired and overshadowed by the striker’s more fruitful combination with Liverpool team-mate Raheem Sterling.
This moment should have defined Rooney’s ninety minutes:
But it was better portrayed by this inexcusable pass:
As my Sunday League manager used to say; Who was that pass to? Capser the friendly ghost?
As you can see below, his attacking statistics against Norway, despite netting the deciding goal, were exceptionally poor:
And his heat-map didn’t produce too much to shout about either:
— Sky Sports News HQ (@SkySportsNewsHQ) September 4, 2014
There have already been some calls to drop Wayne Rooney despite his captaincy. That may seem rather short sighted, but England’s skipper needs an improved performance against Switzerland on Monday night or there will be immense pressure on Roy Hodgson.