By Richard Jolly
Daniel Sturridge’s touch was lacking. His radar was in need of fine-tuning. He was on the fringes of the game, frustrated and frustrating. Then came the exquisite finish, arrowed into the top corner. A forgettable first half-hour mattered not. Yet again, Sturridge had scored.
In an instant, he had illustrated why he ought to be England’s main striker in Brazil. Not merely in the sense of being the furthest player forward, either, leading the line Emile Heskey-style to allow a more gifted No.10 more space, but in the respect that, if only one out-and-out attacker starts, it should be Sturridge.
His victims were only Peru, and Sturridge’s other international goals only came against San Marino, Montenegro and Denmark. He tends to be given second billing because Wayne Rooney’s CV features 38 goals for England and 216 for Manchester United. The Merseysider has the pedigree. The Liverpool striker has the form, the finishing and the fearlessness that were once Rooney’s hallmarks.
Not since Michael Owen went into premature decline have England been confronted with the problem of accommodating two who have proved themselves genuinely penetrative strikers. The cult of Rooney has grown in a vacuum, along with the notion a nation’s hopes rest on his squat shoulders. Another underwhelming display highlighted the point Paul Scholes made: far from being the focal point of the side, Rooney may not belong in it.
Not any more and not at elite level, anyway. Sturridge’s swift improvement does not create a selection dilemma against sides such as Peru or, indeed, most of the teams England faced in qualifying. They can afford to field two strikers. They reached the World Cup by playing a gung-ho 4-2-4 against Montenegro and Poland.
It was entertaining short-termism. The serious stuff starts in Manaus on June 14. England already have experience of playing two up front against Italy. It was harrowing. Their most frequent successful passing combination came when Joe Hart punted the ball up to Andy Carroll. They were outnumbered, out-thought and outclassed in midfield. Anyone whose memory stretches back two years to Euro 2012 can testify that Rooney could not subdue Andrea Pirlo.
When England meet Italy’s timeless master, they require a third central midfielder. The division of responsibilities against Peru – for Jordan Henderson to do the legwork and Steven Gerrard to use his right foot – is another tactic that would be riskier against teams with the tactical nous and assuredness in possession the Italians exhibit.
To put it another way, the ever-willing Henderson will need help. Tellingly, Rooney spent much of his time at Wembley dropping off. Yet occupying a deeper role and man-marking a playmaker par excellence are very different. Tracking Pirlo is a task for a midfielder: one, perhaps, that Henderson could do if, say, Jack Wilshere were to take on some of his other duties.
And so, if Hodgson is brave enough to contemplate omitting his most famous player, it leaves a decision: Rooney or Sturridge? It is his Jimmy Greaves-versus-Geoff Hurst call, lacking the guarantee the younger man will justify his selection with a hat-trick, but with the same sense he does not deserve to be sacrificed. Or, if he incorporates both, does he ask Rooney to reprise the role he adopted so selflessly in United’s 2009 Champions League campaign, of selfless running on the flank so a more devastating goalscorer – Cristiano Ronaldo, in that instance – is the striking spearhead.
It is a question if reputation can save Rooney or if Rooney, after two dismal World Cups, will justify his lofty standing. It is a test to see if Hodgson can be flexible enough in his thinking to adopt different systems for different games. Because while Peru played with three centre-backs – a shape England are unlikely to encounter in Brazil – and while this fixture may have been arranged with Uruguay in mind, it was better preparation for facing Costa Rica, a limited team they will have to break down. Peru had several openings, but had no one comparable with Luis Suarez.
Instead, the reminders of the double Footballer of the Year came from his Anfield ally. Sturridge remains the lesser member of Liverpool’s SAS. For England, however, he is staking an ever-greater case to be the top gun.