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Roy Hodgson: The Welbeck or Sturridge conundrum

England have undergone a mini-revolution in defence and midfield, but Roy Hodgson’s obvious four options upfront are unchanged since the World Cup.

While England didn’t exactly sparkle going forward in Brazil, Hodgson possessed a range of forwards offering different qualities. Wayne Rooney is a goalscoring number ten, Daniel Sturridge a prolific number nine, while Danny Welbeck is more versatile and capable of playing upfront or on the flanks, and Rickie Lambert is a more straightforward, somewhat old-fashioned striker.

Few others are in the picture. England’s back-ups for the World Cup were Andy Carroll and Jermain Defoe, which seems slightly peculiar, while Jay Rodriguez is hugely admired by Hodgson, but has yet to recover from serious injury. When it became clear Sturridge was unavailable for this England squad, Hodgson didn’t even bother to name a replacement, and has persisted with Rooney, Lambert and Welbeck.

The status of Rooney and Lambert is clear. Rooney is now the England captain, and will continue to start, regardless of his fluctuating form. Lambert, on the other hand, is a permanent supersub, with his transfer to Liverpool simply reinforcing the impression he’s a pure Plan B for a top-quality side.

England’s previous two matches, however, prompted a genuine debate about England’s first-choice number nine. Throughout last season there was absolutely no question: Daniel Sturridge was banging in the goals for Liverpool, while Danny Welbeck was frustrated at David Moyes’ Manchester United, kicking his heels on the bench, and increasingly searching for an exit. Now, however, things are very different.

In the 1-0 friendly victory over Norway, England played a 4-4-1-1 / 4-2-3-1 formation with Rooney behind Sturridge, but the team struggled to put together good attacking moves. The best combinations came between club teammates – Sturridge and Raheem Sterling played some neat interchanges, while Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also linked effectively. But upfront, there was little to shout about. Rooney and Sturridge have never appeared a particularly promising partnership when fielded together in central positions, and England’s passing moves often broke down once the ball was played into Rooney, England’s poorest attacking performer on the night.

It’s unfair, of course, that Rooney’s underperformance reflects badly upon Sturridge. But with the Liverpool striker ruled out of the qualifier against Switzerland later that week, England were much improved. A formation switch was partly the reason, with Hodgson deploying a midfield diamond (a shape that suits Sturridge at club level, unfortunately) featuring Sterling just behind both Rooney and Welbeck. England looked better, and Welbeck led the line superbly.

While no longer club teammates, Rooney and Welbeck have an excellent relationship. Welbeck makes the right runs to provide Rooney with an obvious forward ball, while Rooney appreciates the space created by his partner’s selfless running.

In that respect, Welbeck suits England better, and while his finishing has been questioned, he scored two fine goals against Switzerland too, which would have made it difficult for Hodgson to drop him this week. With Sterling, Welbeck, Rooney and Sturridge all expecting to start, Hodgson might have reverted to the 4-2-3-1, with all four deployed in attack-minded roles – probably with Welbeck pushed wide. That’s the format Hodgson tried against Italy at the World Cup, which meant England were overrun in midfield, although this wouldn’t have been a problem against San Marino and Estonia.

Nevertheless, for future matches Hodgson will want a more organised, tactically disciplined side – which might mean a choice between Sturridge and Welbeck. The former is certainly the more prolific goalscorer at club level, but hasn’t yet consistently shown his quality for England – it feels like he needs to directly impress Hodgson more frequently.

Welbeck, however, has never disappointed Hodgson. He scored the winner in Hodgson’s second game in charge, performed well at Euro 2012 and then throughout World Cup qualification too, before doing a solid job on the flanks at the World Cup.

With six goals in his last seven matches for club and country, and with his main rival injured, Welbeck is now the man in possession of England’s number nine shirt. That tally should rise significantly after matches against San Marino and Estonia.

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October 9th, 2014 by Michael Cox

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