Forget Rooney, Sturridge can be England’s main man in Brazil

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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.

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