Why England will - or at least just possibly could - win Euro 2016
Eurosport's Tom Adams was asked by our colleagues in Germany to argue the case that England will win Euro 2016. Talk about a tough gig...
Being asked by a German sister site to try and construct a case for why England *will* win Euro 2016 must surely be an elaborate and cruel exercise in Schadenfreude.
Fifty years of hurt are not an easy thing to try and brush aside for such an endeavour, especially when so much of that pain has been inflicted by, yes, Germany. It is a deeply ingrained insecurity that England are trying to overcome to even reach their first final since 1966, let alone actually win a major tournament.
Still, at Wembley on Thursday night there was some evidence, if not of why England *will* win the Euros, then at least of how they can give themselves a far greater chance of going deep into a competition they in truth have no real right to expect success in. And it all boils down to their captain and all-time record goalscorer, Wayne Rooney.
Wayne Rooney in possession for England against Portugal at WembleyReuters
Prior to the 1-0 friendly win over Portugal, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy had combined for five goals in the past three England games they had played together, as well as hitting 49 goals between them as the top two Premier League scorers this season.
It is harder to think of two more in-form forwards; yet in his final preparatory friendly before the Euros get underway, Roy Hodgson managed to render both men ineffective through his employment of Rooney.
Vardy is the most electric attacker in England, his coursing runs through the hearts of defences propelling Leicester City to the Premier League title. Here, Rooney's use at the tip of the midfield diamond in fact permitted the England captain to split the two strikers, sending Vardy into wide positions and into virtual anonymity.
Harry Kane is an unconventional superstar, but a superstar is what he appears destined to become. The most exciting English striker of this mould since Alan Shearer usually plays like he is pre-destined to score goals. But here he managed only a handful of sights of goal and was reduced to taking corners. It was the most bizarre element of a confusing performance which seemed to set England back a few months in their preparations.
At least the answer to how England can improve is clear, even if it is extremely politically difficult to navigate and may require a more ruthless disposition than Hodgson possesses to pull it off.
Cast your minds back just two months to what was arguably the highlight of Hodgson's England reign: a stirring comeback from 2-0 down to win 3-2 against Germany in Berlin. It was only a friendly, and yet after going two down England showed superb character and no little quality to force their way back in contention. Kane scored after a Cruyff turn in the box and Vardy executed a delightful back-heeled finish. It felt like the start of something; something which could yet be finished.
Rooney, if you recall, was out injured.
Eric Dier celebrates with Jamie Vardy (L) after scoring the third goal for England against GermanyReuters
It was this England that Mesut Ozil surely had fresh in his mind when when he told France Football recently: "Having played in England nearly for three years, I can see a team that is in the process of putting itself together. In the qualifiers, they put together a flawless campaign, which was not by accident. Young talents like Sterling, Kane or Alli have shone. We will have to watch out for England.”
Ozil was right to highlight the youth and potential Hodgson has cultivated. Though it is right and necessary that England's horizons have been lowered since the days they went into World Cups expecting the Golden Generation to deliver, there is nevertheless real potential in the squad the manager has assembled. They have the youngest average age of any country at the Euros and a squad which is pregnant with attacking potential, if only they are permitted to unlock it.
As we saw at Wembley, Rooney does not make England a better team with his presence; rather, he has a disruptive impact on an otherwise prolific attack. Worse still, in fact, he has a suppressing effect on the talent of Dele Alli, who has to sit back to accommodate him, thus breaking the intuitive link he has forged with Kane at Tottenham.
England players pose for a team photo before the game with GermanyReuters
Hodgson is far from the first coach to struggle with managing the decline of such an influential figure. It is a problem which Rooney's last three managers at Manchester United have had to grapple with to varying degrees and, casting the net rather wider, a problem that Vicente Del Bosque has found to be equally intractable in regards to his own captain, Iker Casillas, who still commands a role ahead of David De Gea despite a prolonged collapse in form which has damaged his own team's prospects. The World Cup two year ago was a case in point. Maybe Germany will have it too with Bastian Schweinsteiger as his ability shrivels with every new fitness setback.
What is clear is that if they are to achieve anything in France, England need to make a bold decision. In Berlin in March we were shown a glimpse of what England can be, and a tantalising view of a future universe in which Germany don't always win.
To start writing a new story after 50 years, with new reference points and new heroes, England need something transformative to happen. The good news is that Thursday night illuminated the first step which must be taken, however difficult it may appear right now.