Michael Carrick called the tune in midfield to suggest that England may finally be moving out of the stone age, but improvement is needed in defence and attack
At times, when Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley and Frank Lampard clicked in midfield, the Fifa rankings that currently place England as the third best side in the world despite all available logic did not look so ridiculous. England have long been plagued by their inability to keep the ball, a weakness that has so often contributed to exits from tournaments, and were given a masterclass in possession by Italy's Andrea Pirlo during the Euros this summer. Then, locked into their archaic 4-4-2 formation, England were rigid and one-dimensional, reduced to attacking in straight lines, getting the ball out wide and then hitting the big man. As Spain tiki-taka'd their way to their third trophy in a row, it was clear something had to change and, to his credit, Roy Hodgson has begun trying to alter England's approach, favouring a 4-3-3 formation against Italy on Wednesday night. With a smooth passer such as Carrick at the heart of it, perhaps England are tentatively moving out of the stone age at last.
Jack Rodwell would not be the first young English player to join Manchester City and end up on the bench most weeks. A similar fate has already befallen Adam Johnson, who finds his way into the side blocked by Samir Nasri and David Silva. After the last World Cup, Fabio Capello saw Johnson as one of the players who could rejuvenate his side, but he has simply not played enough for his club. Now 25, his career has stalled badly, which is a terrible shame because he is clearly not short of talent. Operating from the right last night, he linked well with Kyle Walker and his zigzagging runs inside on to his left foot often gave Federico Balzaretti problems. Johnson cannot always be trusted, but he does offer England the sort of daring unpredictability that is so often absent.
England might have kept a clean sheet against Italy during the Euros, but no one was fooled. Only shoddy Italian finishing ensured the quarter-final had to be settled by a penalty shootout after England had been thoroughly outplayed and outthought. The traffic was nowhere near as one-way here, but England's defence still left much to be desired, particularly when allowing Daniele de Rossi to open the scoring with a free header from Alessandro Diamanti's corner. The defence also struggled in open play, most worryingly by simple balls over the top from deep to release Mattia Destro behind Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill, who were both made to look rather ponderous. Given that England often find themselves without the ball against the top sides, Hodgson needs to ensure he can rely on his defence to remain solid.
Jack Butland's England debut did not get off to the best start – he was picking the ball out of his net after a mere 15 minutes. There was no suggestion he was at fault for De Rossi's goal, however, and encouragingly the 19-year-old did not let it affect him. He mostly did not have too much to do in the first half, but considering most of his football has been played in League Two, he was not fazed by his new surroundings. Similarly John Ruddy, who was introduced at half-time, had a fine cameo, producing a brilliant save to deny Destro. Joe Hart's status as the first-choice goalkeeper is not under threat, but the extra competition won't hurt.
Playing up front on your own is not easy. It is a position that tends to demand a striker with pace, clever movement and an intelligent touch – qualities that are not typically associated with Andy Carroll. For all England's neatness in possession, on the evidence of the first half against Italy it will not work with Carroll leading the attack. England mostly resisted the temptation to play long balls, but their midfielders were too often frustrated by the static figure they saw in front of them. If England are to commit themselves to neat, passing football, then selecting a striker who thrives on crosses feels incongruous. England carried a greater threat with Jermain Defoe as their striker and although he is not the long-term answer, his speed and sharp turn for his stunning winner demonstrated what England had been missing. With Carroll's future at Liverpool uncertain, his performance is unlikely to have overly impressed Brendan Rodgers.