Wayne Rooney Spares England’s Blushes On Drab Night Against Norway

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PERHAPS we should not be too surprised, but nothing appears to have greatly changed for the better. Not yet anyway. Roy Hodgson’s team have at least soothed their confidence with a win but it is difficult to be too enthused when the football plods along at this speed, the manager can be seen biting what is left of his fingernails and a half-empty stadium is resorting to the Mexican wave to keep themselves entertained.

Wayne Rooney’s penalty midway through the second half at least spared Hodgson the dubious honour of matching the last time England went six games without a victory, going back to Graham Taylor’s time in charge in 1993. Yet Hodgson, like Taylor, is favouring a 4-4-2 look and again it flickers only sporadically.

Overall, it was a laboured performance, featuring only brief passages when England seemed capable of putting together the kind of joined-up football that might bring Wembley somewhere nearer its capacity. The crowd, 40,181, was the lowest by some distance since this stadium opened in 2007 and, with two shots on target all night, it was a prosaic way for England to prepare for their first Euro 2016 qualifier in Switzerland on Monday.

If the idea was to shake their heads clear after the World Cup, then England have taken the first tentative steps. Yet it is plainly going to be a drawn-out process and it was rare to be at Wembley with so little colour and noise. The top tier was entirely closed bar one thinly populated corner and it was not until midway through the first half the crowd summoned up the enthusiasm to sing for the first time. Hodgson should just be grateful Joe Hart spared England with two saves early in the second half because it would have been a storm of locusts heading his way if either of those chances had gone in. Otherwise, the crowd showed commendable patience bearing in mind Raheem Sterling was the only player to emerge with real distinction.

Sterling’s directness and ability to worry opponents was a prominent feature but England’s return to 4-4-2 hardly seemed like a progressive move and the better football came when it was abandoned after the goal. Norway did not have enough wit or creativity to exploit the space between the lines. Better teams will and it can feel like a dreary old system on nights like these when there are two banks of four rather than players with the licence to interchange positions. Hodgson, in fairness, appeared to recognise the problem, changing to 4-3-1-2 for the latter stages with Sterling coming in from the left to play more centrally.

On the balance of play, England were the superior side. Yet the pace was too slow. The team lacked drive and personality and there were moments of carelessness, too. This was the night Rooney moved ahead of Michael Owen as the outright fourth highest leading scorer in England’s history, but his first performance as captain was largely undistinguished.

Hodgson admitted as much afterwards and there was a comedic moment when Rooney tried a pass to the right and skewed the ball horribly out of play. James Milner did something similar after coming on as a second-half substitute. Gary Cahill, with a wretched backpass, presented Norway with one of their two chances and embarrassed himself later by trying a piece of skill on the touchline, getting his feet in a tangle and knocking the ball out for a throw. A better team than Norway would have punished them. Fortunately for Hodgson, their opponents seemed to be labouring under the belief that England were still a team to revere and Per-Mathias Hogmo’s players seldom had the audacity to break out of their own half. England’s defence can expect a far more difficult occasion in Basel on Monday.

Perhaps the night would have passed more comfortably for England if the Portuguese referee, Jorge Sousa, had not been badly positioned when Havard Nordtveit took Jack Wilshere’s legs for a clear penalty in the first half. Norway maybe surprised themselves to get to the interval level but they were the better side for the first 15 minutes of the second half and will think back to that moment when Joshua King peeled away from John Stones at a corner. It was the best chance of the match until that point and it needed a fine save from England’s goalkeeper to claw his header away. Soon afterwards, King broke free on the left after a wretched back-pass from Cahill and Hart saved his team again.

England’s brightest flashes tended to involve Daniel Sturridge as well as Sterling but overall there was a lack of dynamism in attack and, by the hour mark, it was starting to look conspicuously dishevelled. Wilshere and Jordan Henderson did reasonably well but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain did not have a productive evening and the team looked brighter once Danny Welbeck replaced Rooney straight after the goal.

The penalty came from Sterling attacking on the left, showing the ball to the nearest defender, Omar Elabdellaoui, then going round the outside. He was too quick for his opponent and this time the referee made the right decision. Rooney thumped his shot to the right of the goalkeeper, Orjan Haskjold Nyland, for the 41st goal of his international career.

Hodgson brought on Fabian Delph and Calum Chambers for their debuts in the closing stages and Welbeck tested Nyland with a powerfully struck shot. Norway had gone back into their shell and the game petered out. It was lukewarm applause at the end and the overwhelming sense that the new England seemed awfully like the old version. – The Guardian