Roy Hodgson and Wayne Rooney's leadership in the spotlight
Roy Hodgson knows that knives are being sharpened. His relationship with the press moves into an adversarial phase that all of his predecessors might recognise.
On Wednesday, Hodgson's defence of his team and his own philosophy was as unconvincing as his team's 1-0 victory against Norway in front of just 40,000 masochists at Wembley.
"I have been watching football for a long time and nothing you say will change what I see," said England's coach rattily. Sometimes, he does not make it easy for himself.
He had begun his postmatch news conference with narky bluster, suggesting the press would be granted scant time with him, as he was in a rush to return to the team's hotel, before beginning his summation by stretching credibility. "I thought the performance was quite good," he said.
Wayne Rooney's winning goal from the penalty spot -- an admittedly well-taken spot-kick -- was as good as it got. Before a late flurry after captain Rooney had been subbed off, and Raheem Sterling was granted a central role, England were hesitant, lacking in zest and invention.
The new captain's performance was most concerning of all. Just as he has been handed the armband for both club and country, his form has dropped off a cliff. His new crowns sit most uneasily.
There is currently a disturbing vulnerability to Rooney's game, where he was once streets ahead of his England colleagues. The first touch is unreliable, the radar way off-beam. Whenever Rooney attempted to change up matters with long passing, the results were disastrous. That his team made such definite improvement after his removal was an uneasy truth. Rooney is lucky that Hodgson is far too conservative a coach to ever consider dropping a captain.
"I thought I could have done better," Rooney said afterwards. "I thought we all could have done better, but it's a night where, in the first game after the World Cup, it was important to win."
A summer disaster in Brazil casts a long shadow over England's attempt at fresh beginnings. For the first time in his England career, Rooney looked droppable, yet he is now the captain. Hodgson's status as the nation's avuncular uncle took a serious hit. Wednesday saw him continue to test his own reputation with some distinctly odd responses to questioning.
"With a bit of luck we would have aggravated the score," was one. When asked about his team having just two shots on target, Hodgson became animated, his response dipped into an inappropriate defensiveness.
"Don't give me that one," he railed. "Two shots on target? What about all the ones they threw themselves in front of. Don't hit me with statistics. When we had that much possession, and you talk about two shots on target?"
Hopes of England going to Switzerland and seizing the momentum in Group E were all but dashed. Despite Hodgson's continual trumpeting of young players, he will not be taking these flashing blades from their sheaths. "Switzerland will need to beat us," he said, signalling that England's first mission is to avoid defeat.
"If anything, we might be Norway on Monday; we might be pushed back and can't attack and dominate for long periods, as we did today. I don't know. But it might be."
Hodgson's waffled wall of defence could not quite extend to Rooney, and he even went so far as to suggest that the occasion might have got to his captain on his first night of leadership.
"If every time we play I've either got to praise a player to the skies or criticise a player and say it's not going to work, that's a bit harsh," Hodgson said. "Wayne will tell you he can play better than that and have better games."
Sterling was the one obvious positive, but both captain and coach were measured in praise. "Raheem Sterling is a threat, he gets at players," Rooney said. "It doesn't always come off but he's an exciting player to watch."
"When Sterling moved into the centre he showed the full range of his dribbling ability, so it's nice to know we have these options and won't be totally restricted to one way of playing," Hodgson said. The implication was clear: England will continue with the 4-4-2 formation that Hodgson will always fall back on. Those unsuccessful experimentations with 4-3-3 from the summer are to be put on the backburner.
Only in case of emergency will they be revived, even if the evidence was that Danny Welbeck's arrival in place of Rooney brought fresh dynamism to England. Hodgson, as is his habit, did his best to quell any such excitement.
"In the first half we played against a team who were not making too many attempts to attack us, getting players behind the ball and defending well, terrific blocks and frustrating us," he said. "It's not always right to compare performances in the first 20 minutes with those in the last 20 minutes."
An uneasy night for both coach and captain. Both must face down serious questions against the validity of their leadership.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.