Before the bus carrying Roy Hodgson and his players set off on Rodovia Ayrton Senna into São Paulo the England manager – by his own admission, a man who will not use 10 words if 100 will do – confessed there was something he lacked that Steven Gerrard possessed. Gerrard, he said, had a wonderful knack of being “very good at saying in two or three sentences what takes me 10 minutes to talk through”.
This is why, earlier in the week, he turned to his captain during a debrief of the Italy game back at the team hotel in Rio de Janeiro and invited him to address the squad. Gerrard did not rise from his seat but still managed to hold the room, and what he said essentially took the form of an early team-talk for the Uruguay game, as forthright as anything that has been heard in the England camp since they touched down in Brazil.
“Basically, to realise it could be a terrible, long, frustrating summer if we don’t get it right on Thursday,” Gerrard recalled. “There is no hiding place for a player when you go out of a tournament earlier than you expect. It can be tough and it can take an awful long time to get over it. A lot of people know that in the dressing room but there are a few young lads in there too, so it was important for them to realise what is at stake and how important this game is.
“I have been there. I have had that feeling. So I know what that feeling is about and that is the feeling I don’t want on Friday morning. It wasn’t a message to scare any of the lads but it was a wake-up call to everyone in the room. It wasn’t to scare anyone, or intimidate anyone, but this is the reality of where we are and we need everyone focused and right on it, individually and collectively, on Thursday, otherwise it is going to be a terrible, long summer.”
After four years of preparations, it is certainly going to be a difficult, long inquest if England’s tournament is effectively ended after two games and five days. Hodgson called it “knockout football” and, unfortunately for him, another bad result will inevitably lead to questions about his suitability as manager. That may sound unreasonable in the extreme, when not too many people would disagree with his assistant Gary Neville’s verdict that the performance against Italy was as accomplished as anything England have put together in the last 10 to 15 years. It is, however, just a fact of modern-day football life, whether we like it or not.
Hodgson would no doubt rather think about the alternative, as Gerrard put it, to “wake up on Friday morning with three points and feeling on top of the world”. It has been an unorthodox kind of despondency in the England camp over the last few days – bruised yet somehow uplifted – and this team does have a recent tendency of handling pressure reasonably well, if we think back to the qualifying matches against Montenegro and Poland.
The flip-side is that just because the team passed the ball with uncommon speed and movement against Italy it does not necessarily follow that the same will happen again five days later. England’s performance against Italy drew acclaim, essentially, because it was a rarity. But that is the key word: rarity.
There is also the fact that England were vulnerable too often against Cesare Prandelli’s team, committing so many players forward that there were gaps to be exposed at the back. Since then, a significant part of England’s training has been designed to find a better balance.
“When we get the ball, use the players who can hurt the opposition,” Hodgson explained. “On the other side, make certain our defending is spot on and we get everyone in the right positions, we’re compact and we push across. These are all the things we’re preaching and working on.”
They will need to be clever, too, because Gus Poyet was not resorting to old stereotypes when he talked of Uruguay using every trick possible to gain an advantage. Hodgson said he did not intend to bring it up with his players. Perhaps he should. Just consider the number of penalties that have been won, rather than conceded, so far in this tournament.
Luis Suárez’s return heightens that danger but, first and foremost, it also means Uruguay have a player who Jamie Carragher has just described as a “phenomenon” because of the way he has tormented English defences for Liverpool. Whether Suárez will be at his fittest, or most effective, is another matter but his presence automatically gives Uruguay a more menacing edge.
“We know what he can do,” Hodgson said. “He makes runs behind defenders, he comes off and gets the ball short. He does all the things you want a top player to do. All we can do is make certain our defence is compact and we make it difficult for him in terms of not giving him space and the chance to do the things he wants to do. But the bottom line in football is always going to be ‘what players have you got, what exceptional players have you got?’
“An exceptional player can lift a team. We saw Maradona do it with Napoli all those years ago. That is why, when you talk about Argentina, you talk about Messi. It doesn’t really matter whether you have played against someone before, or that you know his game a little bit better than someone else. If people have that incredible ability they are going to cause problems.”
All of which brings us to Wayne Rooney and the backlash against the backlash, whereby the emphasis has shifted in some quarters from whether he deserves his place in the team, and in which position, to whether the media as a whole are being unfair on a player of his achievement.
The truth is probably somewhere in between. Rooney must find the scrutiny wearing but there is a legitimate debate about his performances and the volume went up only after one of his former Manchester United team-mates, Paul Scholes, described him as having peaked two years ago. There was an unusual exchange with Hodgson when he was asked directly whether Rooney would continue on the left, or switch back to the centre, and the manager’s reply was not about the relevant positions but whether Rooney would actually play at all.
“I’ve got no intention of saying he will or he won’t play. You’ll have to wait until I’ve made my selection and I’ve told the players. Then you’ll have a chance to debate, whether he’s in or he’s out.”
It was a curious answer at a time when there are former colleagues of Hodgson out here in Brazil who know him well and have been openly discussing whether Rooney could be removed from the team.
There is, however, another theory: that it would be wise management if Hodgson restores Rooney to his favoured central role, bearing in mind the message it sends to the player that he still has the trust of his colleagues.
Raheem Sterling can menace in any of the advanced positions but Rooney is not the same on the left.
That is the bottom line here: if Hodgson can get him firing, it makes England a far more effective team and potentially spares everyone the long, miserable summer that Gerrard spoke about.