On the front page of L’Equipe there was a portrait of Paul Pogba and a headline that doubled up as a demand. The accompanying photographs were of France’s legendes. Michel Platini was celebrating his goal in the 1984 European Championship final. Zinedine Zidane was in his victory pose after the 1998 World Cup. “Refaire L’Histoire,” was the message. Repeat History, become an icon in your own right.
For England, coming up for the 50th anniversary of that seminal day in 1966 (when no one could possibly have imagined, several decades on, that England would be described as “the world’s most disappointing team” in a 2010 cover of Time magazine), this is the question that will follow them into Euro 2016, starting with Saturday’s encounter against Russia at the Stade Vélodrome.
Can they create their own history? Do Roy Hodgson and this group of players have what it takes to stand an authentic chance of actually winning something? Or are we still in the same rut from the World Cup when Hodgson boldly proclaimed that anyone daft enough to think England could not win the damn thing “had to be barking up the wrong tree”. England crashed out five days after their campaign began and there was something apt about the Football Association’s chairman, Greg Dyke, having A Death in Brazil as his reading material.
We will have a better idea of England’s credentials, perhaps, once their opening assignment of Group B is out of the way, but it is not entirely easy being convinced when Hodgson has had all this time to get ready but is now pinning his hopes on a completely untried team – with what is, in essence, a step into the unknown.
Wayne Rooney has made 111 appearances for his country, scoring 52 goals in the process, but he has never been used in the midfield role that Hodgson will ask him to fill against Leonid Slutsky’s team and there have to be legitimate questions about why the England manager has changed his mind at the last minute. Perhaps Hodgson feels he has seen enough from Rooney’s games in that position for Manchester United. Yet the fact remains that he is experimenting, again, rather than showing us the culmination of a masterplan.
Hodgson plainly took one look at the Portugal game and realised that he could not persist with the formation he designed specifically to shoehorn Rooney, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy into the same side. “We looked good,” he said after that prosaic 1-0 friendly win, but managers often sugarcoat performances to protect their players. England did not look good, or even close, against a side that went down to 10 men in the first half, and those of us who saw Hodgson afterwards could recognise a manager under stress.
Since then, he and his coaching staff have discussed at length whether Rooney should keep his place and, perhaps for the first time in the Hodgson era, the captain’s role in the starting XI was not guaranteed. The consensus, ultimately, was that Rooney did not warrant a place in attack – but, equally, that he should not be dropped.
Instead, Rooney will move back to work alongside Dele Alli in the centre of midfield with Eric Dier taking the more withdrawn midfield role in front of England’s defence. Rooney, in other words, has been preferred to Jack Wilshere, Jordan Henderson and James Milner – three of Hodgson’s favourites – because of the manager’s determination to find a place for his captain.
Hodgson will no doubt be accused of fudging it but Rooney certainly has the football intelligence to cope in his new position and it would not be a surprise, indeed, should he flourish in the way we saw for Manchester United in the FA Cup final. The issue is more about why Hodgson’s team have reached this stage without better planning and so little clarity in certain areas.
Their newly assembled attack is the case in point given that Hodgson has been preparing with a front three that has Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana either side of Harry Kane. The number of times that trio have started together? One: the 2-0 defeat against Spain in November. Between the three players, according to Opta’s stats, there was a total of 18 link-up passes that night in Alicante (Kane managing half of them).
The idea of starting with Sterling and Lallana does have sensible origins bearing in mind their trickery and elusiveness could expose the fact Russia have one centre-half who is 36 and another who will turn 34 later in the tournament. Sterling has also set up England’s last three goals. Yet the feeling persists that he is fortunate to be in the side after a water-treading season at Manchester City. Lallana should also consider himself lucky judging by his England portfolio to date. For all his decoration, the Liverpool player needs to prove he can exert a strong influence on these occasions because, as it stands, it is difficult to think of an important England game when he has come in from the edges.
Everything together, it all represents a calculated gamble on Hodgson’s part. There is boldness and adventure to his proposed lineup – aside from the back four, Dier will be the only player whose first instinct is not to attack – but who can be certain when it has never been tried before? “The truth is there won’t be many coaches who – if they have any honesty – can honestly say: ‘We’ve got it all covered, we don’t have anything more to work on or think about,’” Hodgson said. No, but it might be revealing to see how many teams begin the tournament with a completely new look to their side.
As for Rooney’s assertion that it was inaccurate to consider him a player on the wane, it was awkward listening to one of the great old warriors in his moment of denial. “I’m aware my game has changed slightly over the years and, in my opinion, it’s changed for the better,” he declared. Rooney has many qualities but the bottom line is he would not be in midfield if he was anywhere near his peak.
Hodgson talked about how difficult it was to select his team and the manager seemed pained by the process. “There are so many good players who could quite easily command a place,” he said. Vardy is one of the casualties and it is tempting to wonder if the Leicester City striker might harbour new regrets about missing England’s penultimate warmup game because of his wedding two days earlier. Vardy could have consolidated his place with a goal or two against Australia. Instead Marcus Rashford played, Vardy’s absence split opinion within England’s camp and when he returned to the side against Portugal the new system did not work.
Vardy could still be a useful substitute and, however odd it might seem in theory, England still have plenty in their favour against an injury-troubled side. Rooney was asked to choose three words that would best describe Hodgson’s team and he took his time before answering. The verdict: “Disciplined, focused, exciting.”