England’s starting XI remained the same, but the format of the side was entirely different. This was Roy Hodgson’s first-choice XI all along – Wayne Rooney in his favoured No10 position, Danny Welbeck on the left, where he played in many of the qualifiers, and Raheem Sterling providing a burst of speed on the right wing. The variation witnessed against Italy on Saturday was purely to contain Andrea Pirlo, a man who had made England suffer previously. Now it was time for Plan A.
This time round, the opposition’s deepest midfielder was an entirely different beast. On the midfield spectrum, you will find Egidio Arevalo Rios at the opposite end to Pirlo – he is a short, aggressive, powerful midfield destroyer. He can’t even spot long diagonal passes let alone actually play them, but he is extremely strong in the tackle and excellent at shutting down dangerous opponents. From the start, he picked up Rooney and followed England’s No10 all over the pitch.
Rooney took rather too long to start varying his position against a strict man-marker. In the opening stages Arevalo Rios continually got his foot in, tackling from behind or preventing him from turning. Later, Rooney was more influential when he showed good movement – drifting back and forth, left and right, dragging his opponent into uncomfortable positions and getting in positions to receive passes on the half-turn.
By half-time he had played a couple of neat interchanges with Sturridge – first a one-two down the right, which forced Diego Godín into a rather reckless challenge for which he could have been shown a second yellow card, and then a slick pass to Sturridge which prompted a shot towards the near post from the Liverpool striker.
England were in a peculiar situation with Rooney. It was not that he was not playing well – he had as much influence on the game as any other England player in the first half. But having moved him away from his favoured position against Italy because he wasn’t capable of marking an opponent, Hodgson must have considered moving him away from that role because an opponent was marking him.
Arevalo Rios was being pulled out of his natural zone – that space in front of the defence teams are desperate to keep filled – but no other England player was looking to dart into that space. What if England had played Sterling, or even Welbeck, in that No10 role? Would Arevalo still have man-marked? And would Rooney be able to drift inside from the flank?
Ultimately, however, England’s real problem was the lack of authority in the centre of midfield. Again Uruguay deserve credit here, with Edinson Cavani dropping off into an extremely selfless role and nullifying Steven Gerrard, preventing passes being played into his feet, and then pressuring him when he received possession. With Rooney and Gerrard often unavailable, or unable to put their foot on the ball, look up and play a clever pass, England lacked guile. Welbeck, Sterling and Jordan Henderson are highly energetic, quick and tactically disciplined footballers, but not players who can command a game.
At 1-0 down, however, Uruguay sat deeper, England had control of possession, and now needed to penetrate a packed defence. Leighton Baines, barely noticeable in the first half, overlapped well to create a golden chance for Rooney, and then encouraged Welbeck to sneak in at the near post, nearly reaching the ball ahead of Fernando Muslera. Against Uruguay’s narrow diamond, going wide made perfect sense, so Oscar Tabárez switched to more of a 4-4-1-1.
It didn’t work. The equaliser came from the other flank, Glen Johnson flying forward down the right and squaring for Rooney.
England successfully got back into the game without leaving the back door open – Uruguay’s winner came from nothing, with an individual error to blame. England had the right idea against both Italy and Uruguay but ultimately they lacked their opponents’ outright class in both matches.