With more questions than answers, Derek Bilton ponders several England selection issues ahead of Saturday’s Euro 2016 opener against Russia.
Amid the tumult on a frenzied evening back in March Roy Hodgson stood emphatically on the touchline in Berlin, eyes big and bright as he surveyed England’s brilliant come-from-behind win over Germany. It may only have been a friendly, but that 3-2 success did so much to boost morale and have England dreaming of ending 50 years of hurt this summer.
Fast forward a couple of months and Hodgson suddenly isn’t standing so tall, his face in press conferences recently looks weary and the eyes have narrowed somewhat. That’s because three recent friendlies have revealed more questions than answers despite England winning the lot. They were wretched for long spells against Portugal, despite their opponents playing for more than half a game with 10 men after Bruno Alves was dismissed for a bizarre Kung-Fu kick on Harry Kane. Chris Smalling’s late header made the headlines, but as performances go England were rancid. They’ve played a variety of systems in recent times but none have looked overly convincing and at time of writing it’s unclear what formation England will go with against Russia, let alone who will start.
What began as a 4-4-2 against Portugal slowly morphed into a bizarre 4-3-3 with Wayne Rooney thrust so far forward the aforementioned Kane and Jamie Vardy ended up wide right and wide left respectively. This basically meant two of the front three – the two most in-form strikers in the English league last season no less – were hopelessly out of position and Hodgson can have no complaints for catching stick on Twitter after the game over this from Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer, two men who know a thing or two about finding the old onion bag for England.
The prevailing narrative suggests that Hodgson is a defensive-minded coach, rigid and unadventurous when it comes to team selection and lacking the Cojones to cast away the tried and tested favourites in favour of new blood. That’s not strictly true. After all he did bring both Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling into the international fold despite minimal Premier League experience. But when it comes to the crunch he will probably play safe against Russia, starting with old favourites James Milner, Rooney and a possibly not 100% fit Jack Wilshere.
Dier key to England prospects
The good news for Hodgson is he should get some room for manoeuvre. The new 24-team format means it is surely virtually impossible for England not to get out of a group including Wales, Slovakia and Russia. The bad news is that if things begin to go awry in Group B it would mean they would have to negate a hellacious path to the final via the likes of France, Germany and Belgium. It’s not all doom and gloom though. England go into this tournament with the youngest squad of all the teams competing and yet they are still fancied to go well. The cocksure Alli was brilliant for Spurs last term and has a great understanding with Eric Dier. Much will depend on Dier’s ability to safeguard the back four.
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Organisation is everything in international football and every country who has punched above its weight in tournaments over the past few years has done so through to being organised and giving nothing away at the back. There is also 18-year-old Marcus Rashford waiting in the wings, a player with seemingly limitless potential. With this in mind England are hardly a team in crisis. Sir Bobby Robson changed tactics mid-tournament in 1990 and we almost went all the way as a result in our best ever tournament showing outside of English waters. So if Hodgson too dares to be bold in France, takes a breath and sets England up properly they could take all the beating.
It’s a big ‘if’ though for England, who are fourth favourites to claim glory in France. I worry for Roy, who has resembled an irritated bear in recent days, dismissing all questions around the validity of playing Rooney and claiming that it’s actually players and not tactics that win football matches. With regard to the latter I have some sympathy, but those players still need to line up in positions that will get the very best out of them. There is no doubt the injury to Danny Welbeck has badly hampered Roy’s plans and if he elects to pursue this 4-3-3 formation in France it will be a gamble. In every bet of course there is a fool and a thief. The coming weeks will dictate which Hodgson is.