Roy Hodgson’s men take to the Wembley pitch tonight against Denmark, and however tempting it may be to experiment with players, he should be using this chance to get the chemistry of the team right, ensure the blend and combinations in certain areas be right. Though most of the first eleven is settled, there are still a couple of spots still up for grabs between certain players, while as always, most of the places on the bench is still there for the taking. Here are the key issues for tonight’s game as well as looking further towards Brazil.
His blistering form that started in December, has been sustained right up till now. The way Raheem Sterling has reacted to being dropped in favour of Joe Allen and Philipp Coutinho last weekend is a testament to how much he has grown, as the young winger came on in a central attacking midfield position and scored the crucial game-killing second goal with his first touch. Coupled with usual first choice right winger Theo Walcott’s injury, and qualifying hero Andros Townsend’s severe dip in form, it is only right that Hodgson places his faith in Sterling. There are simply no better English right wingers right now.
Hodgson cited one reason for Townsend’s inclusion in that crucial qualifier was because his club-mate Kyle Walker was playing behind him at right-back, hoping their combination at Spurs would translate to the national level. Similarly, Glen Johnson’s return to fitness surely sees him back as the first choice right-back, and naturally then Sterling should get the nod with his Liverpool club-mate playing behind him. Further, Sterling’s combination with fellow club-mate Daniel Sturridge would be very useful as well, while England and Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard will ensure Sterling is well taken care of on and off the field.
That Left Wing Conundrum
In 2002, central midfielder Paul Scholes played there in Sven-Göran Eriksson’s diamond midfield. In 2006, right-footed wide attacker Joe Cole was deployed there by the Swede. In 2010, Fabio Capello decided James Milner was the ideal candidate to man the left flank in their run to the last 16. Not since Euro 2000 had England seen a natural left winger, in Steve McManaman, at a major tournament.
2014 is no different. Milner is still a Hodgson favourite, a reliable option that almost certainly does a shift down the left, and could be useful to act as defensive cover on that flank, with the likelihood that Leighton Baines – a great crosser of the ball and attacker from left full-back – most probably the first choice ahead of Ashley Cole. Manchester United forward Danny Welbeck is another Hodgson favourite. Welbeck has the legs and stamina to cover long distances down the left flank, and yet provides Hodgson with movements and runs when England goes forward.
England’s version of Lionel Messi
Still, like Sterling on the right, Hodgson should gamble on another wildcard on the other side – Southampton’s Adam Lallana. He seems to be a player with superb ability on the ball, the most technical player England has got at present. Basically, he is the closest England has to a Eden Hazard or even Lionel Messi. Able to hold up the ball, an eye for a pass, and even the skill to dribble at multiple defenders. With him on the inside left channel, and Baines overlapping close to the touchline, England’s left flank has the potential to be one of the most dangerous throughout the World Cup.
The Other Central Midfielders
Let’s face it, Gerrard will be the automatic choice for one of two midfield spots, with the perfectly legitimate assumption Wayne Rooney will get the No.10 role with Sturridge as England’s No.9. There leaves one place to be Gerrard’s partner in central midfield, and presumably two to three back-up midfielders on the bench.
First off, with Phil Jones a definite to make the squad, his versatility at centre-back, right-back and defensive midfield will mean he is a good option to cover Gerrard’s position as the deeper-lying of the two in central midfield. There is then no need for another ball-retaining midfielder to be in the squad, making it easier to leave Michael Carrick out of the 23-men squad, especially with his poor form for United this season.
Jack Wilshere has always been seen as England’s saviour for the World Cup, and having shown a good understanding with Gerrard in that friendly game against Brazil at Wembley, Hodgson would most certainly have him alongside Gerrard in the heart of England’s engine room. However, one person pushing him for a place is Gerrard’s club-mate Jordan Henderson. His vast improvement and adaptability across all the midfield positions makes him a suitable candidate for a role from the bench. However, it is his form in recent times, essentially the driving force to Liverpool’s unexpected title challenge, that has some England fans thinking Henderson, and not Wilshere, should be the man to drive England forward.
the next big thing: Hodgson’s plan B
The possible fifth central midfielder has to go to the young and rising Ross Barkley. His more direct approach makes him a good alternative, along with Wilshere, to Rooney in the No.10 role. He would also add a further attacking threat from central midfield if called upon. That would probably leave out Chelsea’ Frank Lampard, which might provoke a backlash from Blues fans. But the fact is Lampard has participated in two World Cup finals, and though he has played in the more offensive of the two midfield positions, he has yet to register a World Cup goal – the unfortunate disallowed one against Germany, aside.
Hodgson needs to get his balance right – youth or experience, offensive flair or defensive solidarity, reliance on team chemistry or individuals’ brilliance – and he has to start tonight.