Roy Hodgson had offered up his caveat back at Barry University on the eve of this game. The England manager had been asked if his lineup for the final friendly before the World Cup would reflect his preferred selection in Manaus next week and had bristled in response. “People are trying to second guess the team and the formation,” he said. “I reserve the right to put the team out I want. I’m not trying to fool anybody. But I’m not going to give Italy the advantage of knowing which side I’ll select in advance, either.”
So the guessing game will go on even if, in reality, only late injury or illness is likely to deny nine of this team their start in Amazonia. On the assumption Jordan Henderson’s familiarity with Steven Gerrard’s game earns him the second central midfield berth, only the wide positions feel vaguely up for grabs. England will have been encouraged to have Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain sitting in the dugout with the knee brace discarded from his right leg after his medial ligament strain in midweek, but there was frustration that he was flanked by Raheem Sterling. The winger would have started here had he not been sent off against Ecuador. Hodgson had wanted him galloping at Emilio Izaguirre, but he must now assess the teenager’s form from training sessions alone.
The manager had also spoken of “impact players” in the buildup to this fixture, bracketing Sterling with Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ross Barkley, with his implication clear that any of that trio could be flung on from the bench to stretch tiring opponents. In that context, this was a final audition for the starters, even with their rhythm so disrupted by the bruising of the skies and resultant thunderstorm break. With James Milner on the bench, Danny Welbeck and Adam Lallana were on the outside forks of the attacking trident behind Daniel Sturridge, their styles contrasting but both having rapidly become favourites within this setup.
Lallana still appears happier trotting infield, his willingness to swap with Wayne Rooney allowing him spells operating as the No10 in a central playmaking role whenever the Manchester United forward sought possession nearer the flank. Much has been made of Rickie Lambert’s whirlwind elevation in recent years, from League Two to Liverpool, but Lallana’s is similar. He was a player from the third tier of the domestic game the last time England graced a World Cup, and had still not played in the Premier League as the national side departed for Euro 2012. Now, after two impressive campaigns in the elite, he is the subject of a £25m bid from Liverpool, who feel he can be incorporated seamlessly into their fluid system.
The 26-year-old had been becalmed before the storm, perhaps reflecting the general mood of trepidation given a late injury might dash a dream. But he was briefly revived by the 43-minute break, his clever shimmy and shifting of the ball to eke space from Maynor Figueroa and Victor Bernárdez allowing him a sight of goal from just outside the area with his attempt deflected just wide. He worked almost solely infield thereafter, though Barkley’s cameo still rather eclipsed the Southampton player’s efforts. The youngster from Everton is bolder, and therefore riskier, in possession. Lallana may have been booked for swinging a leg out at Roger Espinoza, but he still feels a safer option.
Then there was Welbeck. The United forward remains an enigma. At club level his 10-goal tally this season was one of his better returns, though he actually managed only one in 15 games after 11 January, with his season soured by a notable miss against Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-final on April Fool’s Day. His return for England is far more productive, with eight in 20 under Hodgson and, more significantly, five in 12 competitive contests under this manager. He is trusted: Hodgson values his energy, pace and scoring knack at this level, but also his industry. He knows the 23-year-old will follow defensive instructions whether positioned through the middle or out on the left. Those qualities work in his favour.
Welbeck was more of a touchline hugger for periods here, confronting Brayan Beckeles when he summoned momentum, and linking smartly with Rooney and Sturridge on occasion. It was his dart and pass, then clever dummy, which liberated Sturridge just before the referee paused the contest midway through the opening period, with the lone striker dragging his shot wide of Noel Valladares’ post. Welbeck had summoned the first effort of note in the game by then, forcing the jittery Honduran goalkeeper to push away an early attempt. He poked another shot into Valladares’ chest just before the hour-mark after Lallana’s dribble had been suffocated in the clutter of bodies just inside the box.
The main criticism of this display was that, at times, he appeared to be trying too hard, his eagerness to impress prompting one touch or turn too many with the ball run out of play or possession surrendered. A goal would have settled his nerves, reassuring him that he belongs. That will now have to come in Brazil. The reality is he will most likely be granted his chance to impress in Manaus though, by then, Hodgson will have the option of throwing Sterling into the fray late on. He may be needed to inject forward thrust into this selection.