One of the consistent downfalls of England teams in recent tournaments has been the reluctance of managers to experiment away from the ‘tried and tested’, both in terms of players selected and formations employed. Roy Hodgson has, on occasion, moved away from the rigid 4-4-2 system that has for so long plagued England’s line ups, but, for the majority of his tenure in charge, when able to, he has selected what is in his view the best 11 players in each position. This may seem like the right thing to do but this long standing desire of national team coaches to shoe horn the best 11 players into the team without regard for what the best system to play is (most notably Paul Scholes in 2004 and Joe Cole in 2006) has hindered the Three Lions prospects in every tournament since the turn of the century. However, now more than ever, systems and formations are becoming increasingly important in football.
Under Brendan Rodgers this season Liverpool have used a system that has made great use of a number of English players. If England can adopt this attractive, attacking brand of football that simultaneously seeks to employ both lighting quick countering attacking, and possession of the ball for large spells of the game then this will provide both England fans and opposition teams something more to consider than the usual drab, lacklustre long balls and endless crossing. The key to this approach is flexibility, with players constantly moving off the ball to occupy different areas of space rather than rigidly sticking to their designated positions.
If England set up in the style of Liverpool’s front six then this allows Steven Gerrard, in the deep lying role, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge to play in the roles that they are most comfortable with and it provides a ready made basis to build upon rather than trying to fit 11 players into a new system. With this, only 2 players are needed to fill the roles left. These remaining roles, of Luis Suarez and Phillippe Coutinho can then be fulfilled by Wayne Rooney and one of Jack Wilshere or Adam Lallana. By having only 2 players to adapt to the offensive side of the system it should provide a greater deal of fluidity, something that has oft been lacking in England performances. England are finally blessed with talented, technical players who can play in an exciting system such as this, and the focus should be here rather than the same mundane, predictable tactics. Questions may be raised as to whether Rooney can be expected to play the Suarez role; he is not as adaptable or quick as the Uruguayan, but after three successive major tournaments with negligible impact giving him the ‘freer-role’ off the main striker may be just the thing to release the shackles on the new £300k p/w man.
As to the defensive 5, Liverpool’s approach this season leaves much to be desired and although this has made for fascinating viewing, it is too much to expect the conservative Hodgson to adopt this ‘gung-ho’ approach. In the heat of Brazil, defensive solidity will be first and foremost in the England managers mind. At centre back it is almost certain that Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka will continue to be his starting partnership in the summer.
The more interesting debate is at left back, where Hodgson has a choice of Ashley Cole, Leighton Baines and Luke Shaw. If, as has often been the case, Roy goes with the ‘known quantity’ rather than the players in the best form he will go with Chelsea’s out of favour left back Ashley Cole. At 33 years old with 106 caps Cole’s qualities are obvious, he is experienced at international level and provides more defensive security than the other two candidates, something Hodgson quite obviously values highly. However, this would be his 6th major international tournament and that is one too far for many observers. Whilst Baines and Shaw are enjoying great seasons, the same can not be said for the ageing Cole who has been ousted from the Chelsea first XI by a right back in Cesar Azpilicueta. There was a time when Cole was the best left back in the world but that day has passed and it is time for England to look to the future. On current form Baines must start at the World Cup with Shaw his understudy to gain experience for when that position becomes his own.
Contrastingly, the recent debate over who should be England’s number 1 seems to have been settled. Manchester City stopper Joe Hart has seemingly rediscovered the form that made him the undisputed first choice for England after a period of turmoil with Manchester City earlier in the season. However, that whole period of uncertainty raised the question of who is the ‘established number 2’ in the England squad. Hodgson must use this time and the remainder of the season to decide who is Hart’s understudy as it now seems he will definitely be the first choice. The selection of four goalkeepers in the squad for the Denmark friendly suggests that he is no nearer knowing his preferred back up option, and it seems wise to rest the City stopper on Wednesday to help find an answer to this question.
Despite what he says it seems very unlikely that Hodgson will call up any player who is not part of this 30 man squad for the final 23 in the summer. Therefore, he should use this opportunity to integrate and assess a few fringe players to see how they fit in with his core players. For example, giving Wilshere and Lallana 45 minutes each to play in the midfield with Gerrard and the same for Steven Caulker and Chris Smalling with Cahill in defence, whilst still giving the key partnerships that will definitely play, such as Rooney and Sturridge, more playing time together. It is a crucial balancing act between finding the best suited fringe players and ensuring they work with the established starters to combine within the overarching system.
Starting XI I would select for Denmark Friendly: Forster, Shaw, Cahill, Caulker, Johnson, Gerrard, Henderson, Lallana, Sterling, Rooney, Sturridge.