England can take positives from defeat
Amid the disappointment of the 2-1 defeat to Italy in Manaus, Brazil, on Saturday night was a number of positives to give England hope.
The biggest of all was the performance of 19-year-old Liverpool starlet Raheem Sterling, who shone on the big stage and proved that he would not be overawed by the occasion. Furthermore, Sterling's role -- the attacking midfield point of the 4-2-3-1 -- showed just how central he has become to Roy Hodgson's thinking.
Sterling has shown this season that he has great pace, power and drive. Against Italy, he proved that he is not afraid to run at defences or shoot from distance and also that he is able to shut down opponents by tracking back.
What was also encouraging from England's point of view was that Hodgson was bold and brave enough to start Sterling. Just when we thought the veteran tactician was a conservative coach, he pulls off a surprise. Above everything, and for the future of the team, that is perhaps the most exciting thing.
Sterling gave England a vibrancy, an edge and a different threat as he raced forward, linked up nicely with Liverpool teammate Daniel Sturridge and roamed wide to find space and openings. Together, Sterling and Danny Welbeck were England's best players, the Manchester United forward putting in a tireless shift on the flank.
The other positive was to see Everton youngster Ross Barkley come off the bench to create a threat to try to salvage the game for England. His energy and drive will be hugely important late in games if he is not handed a start, although this time it was ultimately too little, too late against a strong Italian team with supreme midfield talent.
England were maybe guilty of underestimating Italy. It's easy to look at Andrea Pirlo and quickly forget the quality of Marco Verratti or even the ruthless efficiency of Mario Balotelli up front. They were rugged in defence, well-disciplined and hard for England to break down even if Hodgson's men produced a performance to give the nation optimism.
It was a defeat, but one they can gain encouragement from. They played well. Sterling shone, Welbeck impressed, Sturridge ran himself into the ground, and Barkley's cameo is sure to see him gain confidence.
Still there is the big issue of balance. Hodgson effectively went with four forwards in his lineup, and there are plenty of questions that still need to be answered, especially when Wayne Rooney is not playing at the top of his game and seemed out of position on the left.
For the next game, does Hodgson take one of those players out and go 4-3-3 to give the team more of a balance and more depth in midfield and perhaps have to make the choice of Rooney or Sturridge?
England are often guilty of trying to shoehorn players into the team even if it means playing them out of position. You wouldn't play Leighton Baines in goal to get him in the team, so why play Rooney wide when he's a central forward? It makes no sense. Sometimes you have to be ruthless.
Sterling has certainly given Hodgson something to think about because he is a versatile player who can play behind the forward or wide. But having seen him play so well against Italy, he surely needs to stay as the main man in the middle.
Uruguay are up next and must be beaten. Costa Rica showed that the South Americans are vulnerable, and even if it means taking another gamble, Hodgson must make the right selection to ensure that England get back on track as quickly as possible.