The England national team face two very different types of test this week as they take on Moldova tonight at Wembley before facing Ukraine away on Tuesday in crucial World Cup qualifiers.
Roy Hodgson has targeted ten more points to secure qualification from Group H, but the difficult juxtaposing fixtures will be made even harder without Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney, who will miss out on both international encounters after a collision with Phil Jones in training that’s left him with a gory gash down the centre of his forehead.
England will be without their main man, who’s netted eight goals in 11 outings since Hodgson took over as head coach in summer 2012, but his absence could prove a blessing in disguise for the Three Lions.
When it comes to strikers, the England boys are rather short on established international quality. Andy Carroll, Jermain Defoe, Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck and Rickie Lambert have all featured in the past year for the former Fulham and Liverpool boss, but none have managed to find the net on a regular enough basis to topple Rooney’s position as the starting XI’s lone centre-forward.
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Not that their performances would necessarily guarantee a spot in the first team; Hodgson sees the United forward as one of a rare few shining stars, and as previously stated, Rooney’s form has been at its most prolific for England under the 66 year old’s management.
Jermain Defoe has netted four times in eight appearances over the last two years, but a start for the Three Lions is an uncommon occurance for the Tottenham man, due to Hodgson’s England ‘Plan A’ being centred around a single striker.
The 31 year-old looks set to miss out again this week as he joins the squad struggling with a calf injury, along with Daniel Sturridge who picked up a knock at the weekend for Liverpool but could feature against Ukraine on Tuesday.
It will give England’s new cult hero Rickie Lambert another chance to impress following his match-winning goal against Scotland in August. The former non-leaguer’s personal story of his rise to the top is captivating and inspiring, and the vast majority of Three Lions fans will be glad to see him starting tonight against Moldova.
Admittedly, the quality of the competition is weak, but this will be a huge test for the 31 year-old. Affairs against international minnows are often lose-lose situations for the England team, with anything less than a hefty thrashing often deemed unacceptable by the English media and the public. But Moldova are no San Marino – they’ve already claimed five points in the current qualifying campaign, and their unique system of paying players in either bonuses or fines depending on results, as explained in the Telegraph by Tony Hawks, will motivate them for the Wembley challenge.
Most likely, they’ll set up shop by camping deep in their own half, and it will be up to Lambert to prove he’s firstly capable dealing with all the pressure involved in England affairs against lesser opposition, and secondly that he’s got the quality to penetrate a defensively-minded XI intensely focused on stopping him from scoring.
The Southampton star showed all the skills to do so last season, netting 15 Premier League goals to finish as the division’s highest scoring Englishman tied with Frank Lampard, but now he has to do it on the international stage where anything less than all three points and a healthy contribution to England’s goal-difference will be viewed as a failed venture.
Moving onto Tuesday night, and it will be Sturridge’s turn to impress if he can recover from his niggling groin complaint. Since arriving at Anfield from Chelsea in January, the 24 year-old has been unstoppable, claiming 13 goals and five assists in 17 Premier League appearances for Liverpool including three in three this season. The striker’s only England goal came against San Marino earlier this year, and the Ukraine encounter strikes the right balance in terms of quality of opposition for Sturridge to make a more noticeable announcement on the world stage.
But just as for Lambert tonight, Sturridge will feel the unique pressure England players are put under by a mixture of high expectations and natural pessimism from Three Lions supporters. If three points against Moldova is a given, a win away to Ukraine is certainly not. Whereas Lambert will simply have to go through the motions to get his quality to tell, his Liverpool counterpart will need to put in a high-octane performance as well as find the net if he’s to be the integral cog in an England victory.
For both men, it’s about proving they have the quality and the mentality to play for England, with one eye on the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. But for Roy Hodgson it’s an opportunity to see how the Three Lions play without lynchpin Wayne Rooney. Despite the healthy scoring record, England have fallen flat in vital matches due to a lack of craft and penetration going forward, with Group H fixtures against Ukraine, Poland and Montenegro previously all ending as 1-1 draws.
At the same time, the performances have been laboured and one dimensional; set pieces appear to be the main attacking threat, and trying to keep the ball often proves more trouble than it’s worth for England’s technically limited roster.
To suggest that’s down to Wayne Rooney would be unfair, but Hodgson’s game plan is centred around getting the United striker on the ball as much as possible with mixed results. The 27 year old can produce moments of magic out of nothing, but more often than not, a ball to feet from midfield ends with Rooney being surrounded by two opposing defenders and readily dispossessed. For the Red Devils, he finds space and opens up his body in front of goal, but in an England jersey, he spends the majority of his time facing his own half and rarely gets the chance to penetrate behind the opposition back line.
In typology, Sturridge and Lambert aren’t directly comparable to Wazza Roo and thus Hodgson will be forced into modifying England’s style accordingly. Lambert is direct in physique but comes with unique quality on the ball, whilst Sturridge’s game is filled with flair, close control, pace and lethality in front of goal. Rather than searching for Rooney as often the sole attacking outlet in the final third, both strikers will require a different kind of service from midfield rather than simply passes to feet in the hope the United forward can turn his immediate marker.
And if either forward, or indeed both, prosper significantly in Rooney’s absence, the England boss will need to reconsider how he sets up in future games. Both Lambert and Sturridge’s domestic form is hard to ignore, but proving their worth internationally will make a much stronger case for regular inclusion in the England starting XI.
Hodgson appears adamant to field either 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 formations, and admittedly, the days of the Three Lions playing in an ill-fated 4-4-2 are well and truly dead. But if another prolific goalscorer emerges for England over the next week, it could see Rooney pushed deeper into a supporting role, similar to how he’s most commonly utilised for Manchester United, which in turn, may provide a different and more creative dynamic going forward.
More than anything, Lambert and Sturridge’s outings this week will highlight to Hodgson that he has other viable options up front than the current one-man attacking game plan if the striking duo produce promising performances. Rather than losing our only established international centre-forward, Rooney’s absence will serve as a blessing in disguise, and hopefully encourage the England boss to venture away from the Three Lions’ limited one-dimensional style.
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