Rooney Can't Be Trusted To Stop Pirlo...

Wayne Rooney's central role is under threat once more, this time from Danny Welbeck, who represents England's best chance of snuffing out Andrea Pirlo, says Ian Watson...

Last Updated: 11/06/14 at 09:58 Post Comment

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Attack is the best form of defence, implied Roy Hodgson, when he discussed how England planned to counter the creative threat of Italy's Andrea Pirlo.

The sentiment is admirable, and such bullishness will go down well with many England fans. But at some point reality has to replace rhetoric.

England are unlikely to out-play the Azzurri in Manaus on Saturday, when they will have to defend, possibly for long periods. To not pay special attention to Pirlo, and repeat the mistake of Euro 2012, would be suicide.

Of course, Hodgson knows that. He is a pragmatist and stopping Italy will be weighing on his mind as much as how he goes about drawing the best out of his forward players. One solution could solve both of his problems.

In Kiev, England made no plan for Pirlo, relying on the nearest man to close him down. It didn't work. The Juventus regista was given time and space to seek the killer passes, and when Pirlo spots one, he usually delivers.

Fortunately for England, Italy were wasteful. They failed to beat Joe Hart with any of their 18 shots on target that night but England's luck is unlikely to hold if they allow a similar number of opportunities in the Amazon.

England have to cut off Italy's supply, which, more often than not, comes from Pirlo. Allow him the ball, by all means. But don't allow him the space to wreak havoc.

Pirlo prowls in the area ahead of Italy's back four, the zone normally occupied by Rooney when he plays as a number 10. The England striker, though, lacks the discipline or nous to multi-task as a defensive attacker. Rooney failed to do it in Kiev two years ago and little has happened since then to suggest it was an unfortunate one-off.

In fact, when Sir Alex Ferguson was faced with a similar poser to Hodgson in the shape of Real Madrid and Xabi Alonso, the United boss benched Rooney for the second leg after a sloppy defensive display at the Bernabeu.

Instead, Welbeck was asked to play a more withdrawn role to sit on Alonso and it worked. At least until United were reduced to ten men, after which they were predictably given the run-around.

In Hodgson's favoured 4-2-3-1 system, Welbeck has to be the one designated to Pirlo, but he can't do that from his usual wide position. It would mean shifting Rooney to the left, from where - as both player and manager have pointed out - he can hurt the opposition.

Rooney wasn't interested in listening to Paul Scholes last week, but the former United midfielder was speaking from experience when it comes to dealing with Pirlo. He says the Italian "destroyed" United in 2007 when they opted not to man-mark. Three years later, with Ji-Sung Park stood on Pirlo's toes over 180 minutes, United recorded a 7-2 aggregate win.

Rooney doesn't have the discipline or engine to follow Pirlo on Saturday night while attempting to link up with Daniel Sturridge. Welbeck may not have the talent to do both, but he can do the first job, while his pace puts him in a better position to break forward to support England's attack. Raheem Sterling is similarly capable in that role, but Welbeck's previous experience will probably clinch him the starting spot. After 70 minutes in the Amazon heat, even the great Pirlo will be loathe to see the Liverpool flier spring off the bench to take over the job of turning the playmaker back towards his own goal.

Alternatively, Hodgson may throw Italy a curve ball and play a midfield three, like England did in qualifying during another must-not-lose game - the drab goalless stalemate in Ukraine. Without Rooney that night, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Jack Wilshere protected the back four, while James Milner and Theo Walcott attempted to support Rickie Lambert from wide. Such a set-up, though, goes against everything Hodgson has been preaching and practising in the build-up.

With Welbeck assigned to Pirlo in a 4-2-3-1, it at least allows Rooney more space on the left to be his most effective. James Milner's discipline may be required on the right to compensate for Rooney's tendency to drift into attacking positions, even before the ball is won, which may be another pointer towards a bench role for Sterling.

For all Hodgson's attacking talk, England do not have to beat Italy; avoiding defeat is the primary objective and playing Welbeck, not Rooney, around Pirlo gives England a fighting chance.

Ian Watson - follow him on Twitter

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