The path for England looks tough after slack defending and errors prove costly

When the disappointment is not so raw, Roy Hodgson will probably be entitled to take great encouragement from the way his new-look team contributed to a night of vibrant attacking football. England played as if they wanted to establish an entirely new reputation in one night. Yet the sense of anguish is considerable, bearing in mind they has lost their opening match and the path out of Group ‘D’ looks increasingly hazardous.

They gave everything and, in an attacking sense, the decision to play Raheem Sterling behind Daniel Sturridge was instrumental in ensuring England frequently menaced their opponent. Sterling was outstanding on a night when, ultimately, there were heavy repercussions for a couple of moments of slack defending, most notably when Mario Balotelli headed in the game’s decisive moment five minutes into the second half.

England could conceivably have to win its next two matches, starting against Uruguay in São Paulo on Thursday, but at least they can be lifted by the way they passed the ball, particularly in the first hour. Their movement has never been better in the Hodgson era, encapsulated by Sturridge’s first-half equaliser shortly after Claudio Marchisio had rifled the opening goal past Joe Hart.

Unfortunately for Hodgson, his team’s back line was vulnerable too often. The defending was generous for Balotelli’s goal and if England are to save themselves they will have to remove the errors that undid so much promising work further up the pitch.

Commendable selectionHodgson’s selection will be commended for its adventure and, if nothing else, maybe now he can be spared the tag of conservatism. Sterling was not there as the classic No.10 but because Hodgson thought the teenager could endanger Italy’s central defenders with his directness and searing pace.

The player actually wearing the No.10, Wayne Rooney, was shifted to the left and Danny Welbeck, who usually plays on that side, was moved to the right. Hodgson’s selection was ambitious, experimental and a good riposte to those who feel he lacks boldness. Yet it took some working out and he was taking a calculated gamble. Rooney and Welbeck have never been paired this way for Manchester United and Hodgson’s team have not trained this way once in Brazil or, before that, the week-long training camp in Miami.

Hodgson had pinned his hopes on his attacking quartet adapting quickly to the new structure and how encouraging, almost reassuring, it was to see an England side willing to take on high-calibre opponents from the start. By half-time, it is no exaggeration to say England had created more difficulties for Cesare Prandelli’s team than they managed in the entire 120 minutes of their Euro 2012 quarter-final. They attacked with pace, vigour and real penetration and, more than anything, the sort of fearlessness that saw Sterling, with his first touch, elude a defender and send the ball soaring into the side-netting, fooling half the stadium into thinking they had witnessed one of England’s great World Cup goals.

Here, too, was Welbeck justifying his selection, as if he had been playing in this position for years. Welbeck’s long stride and directness were a prominent feature of England’s attacks, much more involved than Rooney and quickly justifying his selection at the expense of Adam Lallana. Rooney took longer to impose himself but it was a peach of a cross for Sturridge’s goal and the entire move was everything that had been demanded of England: speedy, incisive, modern football. Sterling, on the counter-attack, had played the incisive pass in between two defenders to set Rooney running clear. Sturridge was anticipating the cross and had peeled off to the far post. The trajectory of the cross invited him to hit it on the stride and Sturridge’s half-volley was confidently put beyond the Italy goalkeeper, Salvatore Sirigu.

The goal came two minutes after Italy had taken the lead courtesy of Marchisio’s accuracy from 20 yards and a classic piece of Andrea Pirlo magic. In the opening exchanges, Pirlo had been seen misplacing a simple pass to loud cheers from the England supporters. It turned out this was the equivalent of the pool hustler missing an easy first shot. After 35 minutes, Marco Verratti had the ball on the right of Italy’s attack and played a diagonal pass back into the centre for Pirlo. The dummy from Pirlo was exquisite and completely bamboozled Sturridge, the nearest opponent, leaving Marchisio with the chance to take aim. His first touch steadied himself, the second arrowed his shot past Hart, possibly unsighted by the line of defenders in front of him.

Absorbing spectacleBoth teams could reflect on a number of other chances in the first half and it made an absorbing spectacle. Italy must have been encouraged by a couple of shaky moments from Hart, and Antonio Candreva almost restored the lead with a shot against the post. Balotelli also had a couple of chances, the second one headed off the line by Phil Jagielka. Yet England, on the balance of play, had been unfortunate to be behind and their response was stirring.

The disappointment for Hodgson must be the defending for Balotelli’s goal. Leighton Baines was not close enough to Candreva to cut out the cross and Balotelli eluded Gary Cahill at the far post to score with a downward header.

Rooney had a couple of chances to equalise but could not hit the target on either occasion and Ross Barkley quickly set about making a favourable impression after replacing Welbeck. Sirigu saved one of Barkley’s shots and was tested again by a Baines free-kick. Yet England could not find the equaliser and there was the added disappointment of Sturridge leaving the pitch before the end with an injury.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014

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