Squad players set to step up
Roy Hodgson is not international football's man of mystery. The England manager used Friday's 3-0 friendly win against Peru to showcase his probable side and system for the World Cup. Visiting scouts had the simplest of tasks. Cesare Prandelli, Oscar Tabarez and Jorge Luis Pinto, the managers of Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica, respectively, should have a clear indication of what to expect.
Reinaldo Rueda, his Ecuador counterpart, certainly does. Hodgson has telegraphed his team for Wednesday's friendly in Miami by saying those who did not begin the Peru game are likely to start. It seems less like rotation than employing an "A" team and a "B" team in successive matches. Saturday's clash with Honduras should see the regulars return.
Yet Hodgson should have three aims in mind in his Florida mini-break: to get his semi-fit players back to optimum condition, to give squad members more of a chance to earn a place in his starting 11 and to experiment with different formations.
The first indicates he would be unwise to rest all those employed for the majority of the win over Peru. The bare facts are that defender Phil Jagielka has played only three times since February and Wayne Rooney just one, the 3-0 win over Peru, in five weeks. Rooney looked ring-rusty and Sir Alex Ferguson, his Manchester United manager for nine years, wrote in his autobiography: "If he missed a couple of weeks for United it could take him four or five games to get his sharpness back."
While there are legitimate questions if he merits a place in the strongest side unless his form improves, Rooney ought to begin both matches. Given the paucity of alternatives to Jagielka, so should the current Evertonian. Phil Jones and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who are rather less likely to face Italy, need game time after their respective injuries and merit places to ensure they are ready.
Another of Arsenal's sidelined contingent began his comeback four weeks ago but, while Jack Wilshere made three substitute appearances in May, he has not started for 12 weeks. There are reasons to treat Arsenal's oft-injured midfielder with kid gloves but there are also grounds to believe a fully-fit Wilshere is doubly significant. He would offer an alternative to Jordan Henderson, parachuted into the team by Hodgson in an attempt to replicate his Liverpool partnership with Steven Gerrard. It is equally feasible Wilshere could become England's answer to Joe Allen, dovetailing with Henderson as the veteran captain patrols the turf behind them.
Thoughts have turned to Anfield with increasing frequency of late. The closest Hodgson came to a surprise on Friday was the omission of Raheem Sterling. It is safe to say that, were selection decided by democracy, the winger would displace Danny Welbeck, the hard-running Hodgson favourite whose goal-scoring record is decidedly better for his country than his club, in the World Cup XI. There is a case for a straight swap, bringing in Sterling on the left flank, or to pick him on the right and let Adam Lallana wander over to the other side.
Sterling offers options in abundance. The most intriguing comes courtesy of Brendan Rodgers, who reinvented the midfielder as a roving No. 10, capable of using his pace as a pressing, counter-attacking tip of a midfield diamond. It would require a radical shift in thinking from Hodgson to adopt the same shape. It is also an idea worth considering, not least because Italy unsettled England and starved them of possession in Euro 2012 by playing a diamond. Should Hodgson copy Prandelli, then Sterling could be Andrea Pirlo's designated opponent, charged with subduing a man England granted the freedom of Kiev two years ago.
Hodgson's squad actually contains several gifted attacking midfielders -- Lallana, Ross Barkley and potentially Wilshere or Oxlade-Chamberlain -- who could play at the tip of a diamond. It is also the only shape that would allow England to field Daniel Sturridge and Rooney as twin strikers (in 4-3-3, one would either have to play as a winger or be dropped) and prevent them being outnumbered in the centre of midfield by the Italians.
Don't bank on him trialling it, however. Instead, there will be sightings of the other squad players, such as Liverpool's newest signing Rickie Lambert, the workaholic James Milner and the vice-captain Frank Lampard, who could benefit from some time shielding the back four if he is to be Gerrard's understudy. Given the lack of other right-backs in his initial 23, it makes sense for someone -- Chris Smalling? Jones? Milner? -- to deputise for Glen Johnson against Ecuador.
But Hodgson showed his hand at Wembley. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that his priority in the next two games will be to ensure his preferred players are ready for Italy and it make take a spectacular display on Wednesday to change his thinking. Having named his squad earlier than most of his counterparts, he seems to have selected his side before them, too.