World Cup preview — England tunes up with win over Denmark

Years ago, before a big match between England and Denmark, a chauvinistic commentator predicted that the Danes would take a beating at Wembley Stadium and then go back to “doing what they do best — drinking lager, making sandwiches, and watching English football on the telly.” Instead, the Danes defeated the English and qualified in their stead for the European championships.

These days, Denmark is a cut below England in the soccer chain-of-being. The Danes failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup. However, they are the kind of team that, in a normal World Cup draw, England would battle for a place in the final 16 of the tournament. (As noted here, however, the draw for this World Cup was abnormal, probably to England’s detriment). Thus, with the World Cup only three months away, Denmark was a good opponent for England to face in a “friendly” match last Wednesday.

England prevailed 1-0 at Wembley in a contest more comfortable for them than the score suggests. In doing so, England ended a two match run of bad form that had seen them lose at home to Chile and Germany.

Manager Roy Hodgson opted, as I thought he would, to load his attack with Liverpool players in the hope that they would replicate the stunning play that has taken the Premier League by a storm of late. The midfield and strike force contained four Liverpool stars — Daniel Sturridge, Rahim Sterling, Jordan Henderson, and Steven Gerrard (joined by Wayne Rooney of Manchester United and Jack Wilshere of Arsenal). Hodgson also selected Liverpool right back Glenn Johnson, who played at times almost as a winger.

But though he got the personnel right, Hodgson didn’t align the team correctly during the first half, in my view. He put Rooney at center forward with Sturridge and Sterling on the flanks (for the most part), and employed a conventional three man midfield consisting of Henderson, Gerrard, and Wilshere.

This meant that Sturridge, who has been scoring for fun, was often too far away from goal while Rooney, who excels at playmaking, was too close to it. So although England dominated possession, they rarely looked like scoring.

Hodgson switched things up for the second half. Sturridge moved into the center forward role while Rooney (and later Danny Welbeck) dropped into a more withdrawn attacking position. Sterling remained on one flank and Adam Lallana (enjoying a brilliant season for Southampton) entered the match to man the other. Gerrard and Henderson remained in central midfield, but Wilshere came off.

The attack began to click, creating several excellent goal scoring opportunities. England finally converted one late in the half. Sturridge scored the goal on a fine assist from Lallana.

Sterling played a key role, as well. By chasing a “lost cause” he maintained the possession that produced the goal. Only 19 years old, Sterling was, for me, the Man of the Match thanks to his non-stop running at, and past, defenders.

I assume the 1-0 win over Denmark convinced no one that England will go deep into this World Cup. But it suggests to me that, unlike at the last World Cup, England at least has a coherent plan. That plan is to unleash great pace at the opposition.

With Sturridge at center forward, Sterling on one flank, Lallana, Welbeck, or Andros Townsend on the other, Gerrard in the deep playmaking role, and Rooney linking up play, few teams will be able to defend against England with customary comfort. Indeed, Uruguay, the team that may well battle England for a place in the final 16, will probably feel rather uncomfortable given the age and ponderousness of some of their defenders. Even the Italians, master defenders and favorites to win the four-team group, may struggle to cope.

England fans should also be encouraged by the youth of most of the players likely to play a part in the attack. Sterling, as already noted, is 19. Sturridge is 24; Welbeck 23; Townsend 22, and Lallana 25. In central midfield, Wilshere is 22 and Henderson 23.

So even if things don’t pan out in Brazil, the future of England’s national team looks brighter to me than it has in some time.

UPDATE: I should add Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (age 20), who came on late in the Denmark match, to the mix of speedy young attackers available to England.

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