Deploying England’s prolific striking trio for the first time as a combination didn’t produce the desired outcome — even against a Portugal side reduced to 10 men for most of Thursday’s friendly.
Rather than Wayne Rooney, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy combining to give England a sparkling send-off to the European Championship, it took defender Chris Smalling’s late goal to seal a 1-0 win over Portugal, which rested Cristiano Ronaldo.
“We didn’t have many chances, none of us, so it is something the manager is working on and Portugal made it difficult,” Rooney said. “It is a 23-man squad, not three players. It is about all of us, not three of us.”
England departs for Euro 2016 with three successive victories in the warm-up games but they were all secured by one-goal margins, slender successes Hodgson didn’t mind because they dampen expectations surrounding this emerging squad.
A conundrum for Hodgson before the June 11 opener against Russia in France is whether he can accommodate Rooney, Kane and Vardy together in the starting lineup again.
Kane and Vardy, the Premier League’s top two scorers last season with 49 goals between them, were shunted out wide to make way for Rooney centrally at Wembley Stadium.
“We played with split strikers,” Hodgson said. “When you play with that system, you need your strikers to split. If you play with them going down the middle and Rooney in behind them, you would never be able to defend the wide areas.”
Rooney, the 30-year-old captain, was on target with a first-half header but couldn’t score a record-extending 53rd England goal. And while Kane produced one shot on goal, Vardy struggled to get near the net.
“There were moments in the game where they were too wide,” Hodgson said of his strikers. “Basically speaking their job is to split and come together.”
It took a precision cross from substitute Raheem Sterling, pinged to Smalling’s head in the 86th minute, for England to provide a more upbeat end to a frustrating night in north London. It was the defender’s first goal for England on his 25th appearance.
“We are winning games when we are not playing well,” Rooney said. “In tournament football you have to improve to win games.”
The game offered encouragement to Portugal coach Fernando Santos on what could have been a demoralising night ahead of Euro 2016.
“Portugal played well defensively,” Santos said. “England tried to attack on the sides and we were good in these positions.
“We protected our defence and also England didn’t really have many opportunities to score against us.”
Until Smalling scored, Portugal kept England at bay for more than 50 minutes after Bruno Alves was dismissed for a high kick on Kane in the 35th minute.
“Alves apologised to the group after the match,” Santos said. “It was a strong tackle but it’s not going to happen again. “
Before the Portuguese begin their Euro 2016 campaign against Iceland on June 14, they still have another friendly against Estonia on Wednesday when Ronaldo is due back after winning the Champions League with Real Madrid.
England, which has already beaten Turkey and Australia in warm-up games, now has barely a week until its bid for a first European title begins.
“We aren’t the finished article,” Hodgson said. “That’s also quite a good thing because had we won the three games 4-0 then what (media and fans) would also be saying is, ‘You’ve got to win it now.’ And with a young team I think that would have put too much pressure on them.”