As the crowd inside a near-full Wembley stadium progressed from an excited buzz to a shrugging torpor, it was hard not to detect a faint sound ticking away underneath it all.
With England’s opening Euro 2016 fixture nine days away this was the chance Roy Hodgson had waited for, an opportunity finally to put Wayne Rooney, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy on the pitch together. The VaRooKa strikeforce: prickly, prolific, hard to shift.
Or not, as it turned out. At least, not like this. As Hodgson’s trio of strikers clanked and jangled against one another in a failing diamond shape, as Mexican waves rippled around the stadium, it was hard to ignore that faint ticking-away beneath it all, the sound of a last chance to click into gear quietly petering out.
England’s late winning goal in this 1-0 defeat of Portugal was at least a pointer to something else as Raheem Sterling, the only semi-genuine wide player in the squad, finally used the flank properly, crossing for Chris Smalling to head home.
Otherwise this was a funk, a stilted, backfiring crossed-wires formation as five of England’s outfield players were asked to learn a slightly altered role on the hoof. All this in the final prep game for a tournament England can approach if not with optimism then at least with interest.
The attack was the real clunker here and the real chance missed. Although there was at least some consistency in the fact Hodgson’s attack managed to jiggle every single member out of position. Rooney looked most at home playing a version of the No10 role at the tip of the midfield diamond. Kane and Vardy, both genuine central strikers, were split far too wide as Rooney thrust up between them like an eager, wet dog’s nose plonking itself in an unwelcome lap.
It is fair to be frustrated by this, just as it is easy also to forget among all the noises off just how unusually fine the attacking riches at Hodgson’s disposal are right now. For this game England lined up with their all-time international top scorer tucked in behind the Premier League’s top scorer and a player whose goals have just sealed a league title.
The job for the manager here is clear: no need to pull anything miraculous out of his velvet bag, no need to tinker of cajole or wring out something fresh. The only task is to get them out there and let them play as they can and have.
And yet England will now go to France in a state of uncertainty precisely where they should be strong. Here’s an odd fact: the opening minute was also the first minute Vardy, Kane and Rooney have ever played together on a football pitch anywhere. Absences haven’t helped. Neither have Rooney’s injuries. Still, it is hard to avoid the feeling of so many plans laid, but somehow never quite the right ones.
Wembley was officially a sellout, with only a smattering of empty red plastic at kick-off, perhaps disappointed CR7 super-fans. England’s diamond was in immediate evidence, with Rooney pushed right up in between Kane and Vardy, who split dutifully right and left. Kane has played No10 himself. He knows how to roam and link but here he seemed too willing to drop back and forage and play near the touchline.
This is one of England’s real aces, a genuinely fine centre-forward who can muscle a defender, link the play, shoot in a tiny bubble of space but he was shoved out into a kind of utility-attacker shemozzle with Rooney ahead of him. Suddenly taking the corners (which makes no sense) made a little bit of sense. At least he didn’t have far to run.
It was from his own touchline position that Kane did decisively affect the game as he was kicked in the head by Bruno Alves, who was then sent off. Shortly afterwards VaRooKa linked as a three-man attack for the first time in this game (and thus also ever) as Vardy passed to Rooney, who fed Kane, who shot low and hard at Rui Patricío.
It is hard not to feel Hodgson missed another trick by keeping Kane and Dele Alli so far apart on the pitch. Alli-Kane was one of the really fine combinations of the season just past, often with Alli right behind Kane. Here Alli roamed across towards Kane now and then like a mournful bear in search of its mate. But for most of the first half he played as a shuttling left-winger, with Kane 40 yards away on the far side.
Maybe it will all be fine. Continuity and embedded plans are rare luxuries in an England tournament team. The Shearer-Sheringham axis had played 90 minutes together once in the year before Euro 96. Peter Beardsley and Gary Lineker didn’t start the 1986 World Cup. Good players are good players. They know how to twang each other’s switches. Still though, unbalancing a team with your favoured must-picks has been a vice of successive England managers.
Rooney is one issue here, an undroppable who forces the rest of the parts into odd shapes. More likely Vardy will be cut, with Sterling a more natural wide player. Either way the failure to find a working system for an excellent attack is doubly frustrating, if only because we know how good – with the right little nudge into shape – they might still be.
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