In recognition of the International break this week, let’s talk about the England team. They’re our national obsession, our regular source of hope and promise, yet unwavering provider of disappointment. There are obviously a lot of opinions concerning every aspect of them, from selection to management and ambition, as everyone feels involved in and entitled to their national side. Having a debate, whether it be from the national newspapers and broadcasters, the members of the FA committee, or even any of us average fans, is a good thing for the game as it helps progress happen. Within these debates, there are a lot of vital issues to the success of our nation on the international stage, but from some only more questions are thrown up. So I’m here this week to give my opinions on the direction of England, who are going into this summer’s European Championships, at least in my opinion, unsure of their potential. How far can they go? Who will be the players selected? How important are this week’s friendlies? Let’s find out…
Firstly, we need to set a few things straight. From a fan’s perspective, we hardly ever see or hear what happens in FA meetings or management talks, so it is hard to gauge a real opinion on how the FA are rating the prolonged period of disappointment or what our chances are this summer. But that is what is so captivating about international football; the unpredictability and the focus on the actual footballing side of things rather than boardroom meetings. I’ve never understood why people slate the international game for being ‘a waste of time’, when they will undoubtedly jump on the bandwagon after one win. It’s partly down to this attitude from fans that England have never performed that well at tournaments, at least in my lifetime (from 2001). Fans need to get behind the team at all times if they want to see any success; it’s almost like they enjoy criticising right now. Some target Greg Dyke and others in his position, some lay responsibility at Roy Hodgson, whereas most of the fans visible on social media blame Wayne Rooney. It’s not like he is personally bringing down our team, is it? How can the absence of our vastly experienced (record goal scorer) captain make us a better side? My philosophy on criticism is that if you realistically couldn’t do a better job yourself; don’t be so quick to lament somebody else for the job they’re doing.
Now that we’ve sorted that, let’s establish where the team could be left after this week’s two friendlies, Germany away today (Saturday 26th) and the Netherlands at home (Tuesday 29th). We all know that friendlies are about gauging the limits of the team, both tactically and fitness-wise, but by this point, and with the amount of experience Roy has in his squad, we should all have a pretty good idea of this. Well, especially from today’s match, we should get a perfect idea of where we stand as a team in preparation and expectation for the Euros. According to the current FIFA world rankings, England stand 9th in the world and 5th in Europe, whereas with UEFA’s rankings we are 3rd in Europe, behind only Germany and Spain. These rankings aren’t entirely representative of the truth, though, as the Netherlands are still ranked above this summer’s hosts France in both FIFA and UEFA’s lists. This is the result of a combination of France only being able to play friendlies instead of qualifiers and the 3rd place finish at the last World Cup by the Dutch. So we need a real test of our stature. This will come in the shape of Joachim Löw’s all-conquering, highly tipped German side and Danny Blind’s beaten and bruised side, fresh from the shock of failing to even qualify for Europe’s showpiece international tournament. Two very different challenges, good preparation for the types of situations the team will face in the summer, the pressure of the grudge match with Wales and the seemingly winnable tie with Slovakia.
These friendlies will be imperative, not only to the players Roy may pick to be on the plane in early June, but to the tactical approach to games he might take. If we set up to hold out the German attack including Mario Götze, Thomas Muller and Mesut Özil in the same way we did in our friendly in 2013, we will see a low-scoring stalemate decided by any glimpse of skill. The only reason I remember that match is because of the fact we had no shots on target in the whole game, despite the fact we has such legendary talent such as Tom Cleverley, Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez in the squad. That is something we don’t want to see a repeat of. Defensive-minded football is fine, but not to the extent to which we have no serious goal threat for the entire 90 minutes. We need to express our attacking threat in players such as Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Ross Barkley, as this is where I believe we are at our strongest, especially against the less-than-perfect German defence who lack experience past Mats Hummels and Shkodran Mustafi. On the other hand, we cannot go too gung-ho as the Germans pose a very true threat going forward, meaning we need to take our chances when they come and try to keep the ball at all costs.
For the next match, this time with the advantage of playing at an imposingly packed Wembley against the Dutch, the team should all be raring to go out and claim their places in the squad. We need to respect a strong opposition with the (often inconsistent) qualities of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Memphis Depay and Wesley Sneijder. Holland are an interesting and unpredictable proposition as they will most likely be blooding their eager-to-impress youth such as Jetro Willems, Riechedly Bazoer and Quincy Promes while learning a new style set revive them from their qualification slump. Danny Blind is a very strong coach, most likely to start using his man-management skills to mend the frayed tempers of the aforementioned Sneijder and Depay, but is yet to show his qualities as a manager. If he can adapt to the role quickly England should be in for a strong test, but on the other hand we could see the talents of Danny Welbeck, Raheem Sterling and Jamie Vardy come to fruition and hand us a solid win. I personally would hand Danny Drinkwater a start in this match to test himself against the midfield dynamos of Jordy Clasie, Ibrahim Afellay and Georginio Wijnaldum. This could be the perfect game for Drinkwater, who when paired with either Jordan Henderson or James Milner, would be ably supported in the fight for domination in the middle of the park. This is the game for Roy to explore his options and hopefully guide us to a morale-boosting victory.
So who will make up the squad for the tournament in the summer? Personally, I would assort the 23 to three goalkeepers, eight defenders, eight midfielders and four strikers, allowing us the flexibility to revert between any of Roy’s previously used 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 formations. The three goalkeepers, barring injury, should be easy to decipher; Joe Hart, Jack Butland and Fraser Forster. Hart is our obvious number one, but could be pushed right up to kick off by the impressive Butland, who has outperformed many players older than him in his position this season. He has earned himself his promotion from under-21 first choice to a regular back up for the full side, topped off with the possibility of two more caps to add to the collection in place of the injured Joe Hart in this week’s friendlies. Forster has also exceeded expectations this season in the few games he has played since his recovery from a 9-month lay-off from a broken kneecap, helping Southampton only concede eight goals in their last eleven games and being rewarded with a return to the England squad in the process. Hart and Forster’s experience at the last World Cup should also prove useful.
Next, let’s look at the case for the defence. With eights defenders in my squad, I would pick four centre backs and four full-backs, with some capable to fill in for the others in-game if the situation requires it. For my centre backs, I would see Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling as our two most obvious and likely to start together come the Euros. So after those two, we are left with a choice of two from John Stones, Phil Jagielka and Phil Jones, with the minute possibility of James Tomkins, Scott Dann or Ryan Shawcross if injuries cause replacements. In my opinion, Stones should be rewarded for his meteoric rise from lanky teenage defender at Barnsley to imposing first-choice at Everton with a place as a result of his good form in the first half of the season, and the possibility to gain vital knowledge from the Euro experience. So, Jones or Jagielka, Phil or Phil? Tough one to call in my opinion, as both play the role of the more tackle-hungry, tight marking battlers in the heart of defence, put their bodies on the line for their team. From Jagielka’s performance at the last World Cup, failing to prevent Mario Balotelli or Luis Suarez from scoring against us, a lot of questions were asked about his suitability at this level. His desire is unquestionable, but his technical ability has often been found lacking, although on the other hand the same could be said at the same times about Jones. His lack of appearances this season through injuries could cost him by the time Roy picks his squad, although his versatility and experience for his age (20 caps at the age of 24) could tempt Hodgson to think long and hard about his pick.
At full back, we have a number of quality options with many in-form names being thrown around, but we need to get serious on who can nail down those two spots. My two right-backs would definitely be Kyle Walker and Nathaniel Clyne, as they have both had very solid seasons, ably displaying their maturity and talent. Walker is the more attacking option, well known for his love for bombing forward and supporting attacks for Spurs, but it isn’t relentless running that is needed at international level, as we saw with Glen Johnson’s poor performances against both Italy and Uruguay two summers ago. In tense games that can often be decided by a single goal on the international stage, we need an all-round full back who can ably revert with his centre back when they reassume positions tracking back, support the winger in front of them and is able to get into the face of the opposition’s attackers. For me, Nathaniel Clyne is this player for England, and has shown it with his controlled, solid performances in the qualifiers. Playing under Jürgen Klopp has only aided him in his training, as he now understand the mentality of ‘Gegenpressing’, high tempo, continuous pressure on the opposition designed to rush them into mistakes so your team can profit.
At left back, there is a whole different proposition. Ryan Bertrand and Danny Rose are occupying the two spots this week, but that is not to say Leighton Baines or even Luke Shaw could return and makes their names heard. Personally, if all four were fully fit and playing as they have this season, I would pick Bertrand and Shaw. Seeing as Shaw would have to recover quickly to stand a chance, I wouldn’t take the risk, but rather pick Leighton Baines as my second choice. In my opinion, Baines is more complete than Rose, whose performances, while impressive attacking-wise, can often be erratic at the back, leaving the more experienced Baines to take my spot, especially if he can impress in Everton’s run-in.
Central Midfield is our next subject, where I believe five players will be picked. On current form, I believe that Alli, Barkley and Jordan Henderson are sure-fire picks. The fourth place I believe is between Milner and Jack Wishere, where unless the latter can return with a bang, the former will be picked for his fourth straight international tournament, vital experience to blend with Alli and Barkley’s rawness. For the fifth spot, I believe it’s a three way fight between Eric Dier, Danny Drinkwater and Michael Carrick. This could be a very interesting battle depending on the first two’s performances in the friendlies, as they will be keen to impress Roy. Certainly on form, Dier and Drinkwater seem to have the upper hand on Carrick, who has had a difficult season with injury. This is the risk with which he experience comes with, the risk of his body becoming more prone to niggles at his age of 34. As I think it was Danny Murphy pointed out on Match of the Day 2 last week though, his experience at the top end of the game is very useful in the pursuit of success, as any squad needs older players who know the game inside out and how to play it in different situations.
While Dier and Drinkwater may only have two caps between them (prior to the two friendlies) they have undoubtedly earned their places in the current squad on club form, playing similarly pivotal roles in each of their sides fights for the title. They both play deeper roles, shielding their defences while also having the ability to play killer balls forward, creating goal scoring chances. They have both linked up with English international strikers (Kane and Vardy) and are both products of talented academies (Sporting Lisbon and Manchester United, whilst both played for the England youth teams). But it is here where the similarities end. It is at this point that Roy needs to make his pick of the two. Will it depend on which one wins the Premier League? Will it depend on which would complete the squad more, with Dier being able to play centre back? Will it depend on who has more future potential around the squad? I think this one is too close to call, a final decision that could anger either sets of supporters equally.
Moving on to the wings, I believe we should take three along to France, all having the ability to switch flanks if required. Taking this into consideration, my picks would be Raheem Sterling, Theo Walcott and one of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Adam Lallana. Sterling and Walcott have both shown in the past, both on club and international levels, that they are able to be versatile and with their experience (20 and 42 caps respectively) should be musts for the squad. The Ox or Lallana is a decision that requires the context of the style England currently play, mainly because our tactics require versatility, pace and accuracy from our wingers, with the ability to both score and set up goals. With this in mind, my personal decision would be Oxlade-Chamberlain, who despite his disappointing season has always performed in big games, such as England’s friendly against Brazil in 2013 and in the Champions League for Arsenal (2 goals scored and 2 assisted from 7 games last season). Lallana appears to rely more on his skill rather than raw pace, which can make his play more frustrating when it doesn’t come off, which has been the case for the last few inconsistent seasons. He didn’t really get going at the last World Cup either, so if I was him, I wouldn’t get my hopes up before some better performances.
Now to the players that crown any team, the cherries on top of the cake; the strikers. While there has been some debate about this position on social media, I don’t see the decisions to be too difficult. Harry Kane is probably our main striker now, Jamie Vardy is there on his brilliant record-breaking season, and Wayne Rooney is our captain, our lynchpin, our big name player in the squad. I honestly can’t understand the calls for him to not be in the squad for the summer, the argument is completely nonsensical. You simply cannot drop the leader of the group, our record goal scorer and most admired (by fans abroad and in Britain) player simply because he has been playing in a system that doesn’t suit him this season. Yes, he hasn’t scored as many goals as normal for Man United, but that is in a team that, according to Squawka, have 17th out of 20 in the Premier League table for chances created (19th in key passes and 15th for amount of assists). Rooney’s game relies on a bevy of attacking talent combining, a taller striker to work off (which he would have in Kane) and skilful, pacey wingers (Sterling and Walcott). He can play behind the striker, allowing him to use his long and short passing skills, his vision and leadership in uniting attacks, setting up and finishing chances. He has shown this so consistently for England, one of their best performers in the last World Cup, and the country’s second top all-time scorer in international tournaments with six goals. His ability in dead-ball situations is also well-known and probably the best we have to our disposal, particularly important in knock-out matches decided by penalty shoot-outs (although we’d probably still lose them). For me, the last striker spot is taken by Danny Welbeck over Daniel Sturridge, as the former is trusted by Hodgson, can also play on the wing, has a great record for England (14 goals in 33 games) and is in good form. From my point of view, the latter is a liability with his injuries and inconsistency and, despite his goal at the last World Cup, should not be risked this time round.
So how far can we go at the Euros? Well, by my own predictions (which aren’t always great) I believe we can get to the quarter-finals, where according to UEFA’s Euro 2016 draw plan, we could meet Belgium. From my understanding of it, the winner of the round of 16 match between Group B winners (hopefully England) and the 3rd place team with the most points from either Groups A, C or D (I think Romania, Ukraine or Czech Republic) will face the winners of the other RO16 match between who I think will be Portugal and Belgium. If my prediction does materialise and we win our group (and RO16 match) a very tasty match up with Belgium should really test us. In my opinion, this is where our talent will meet its match in the likes of Courtois, Hazard and Lukaku (not Fellaineh, sorry lads) and we could fall, perhaps in extra-time or on penalties. From that, we would miss out on a potential semi-final against defending champions Spain.
But does a quarter final finish, equalling our result last time round, constitute success for us? Or would it mean the end for Roy at the age of 69? If my prediction was correct, I think the nation would feel lukewarm about the result, slightly disappointed but still a tad satisfied. It all depends on how we perform, how much promise we show, if we could’ve gone further if it were for some better luck. I believe this will be Roy’s last tournament in charge, but I think it will also be one he is looking to go out on a high with. Who knows what will happen? To be honest, we have to just wait and see. This is where the excitement of it all starts. Let’s hope it all goes to plan and we can spring a surprise, for the sake of our country. 50 years after the home glory of the World Cup, it would only be fitting to have some more success. Please?
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!