England Are Back And Hungry For... Steady Improvement?

England are back in action and, as ever, the only way is up for Hodgson’s men. Here's a run-through of some selection dilemmas for the qualifying campaign and suggested solutions.
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England are back in action and, as ever, the only way is up for Hodgson’s men. Here's a run-through of some selection dilemmas for the qualifying campaign and suggested solutions.

As England play Moldova tomorrow night in Chisinau in their first World Cup qualifier, I will definitely not be watching. On numerous occasions over the past few years I have declared myself so exasperated by England’s performances that I would boycott an upcoming fixture (as if anyone cared whether I watched or not!), only to invariably find myself, resigned to my fate, sitting through 90 minutes of substandard guff.

I usually manage to convince myself prior to the game that things are sure to improve, and that we have a handful of top players who are just waiting to reveal themselves as international superstars, but then my self-delusion is typically shattered by the reminder of England’s inability to string a few passes together, let alone create a purposeful attacking move. Luckily I’m guaranteed to be sat on a coach travelling across the country for the duration of tomorrow’s game.

With Hodgson having been at the helm for roughly three months now, expectation will naturally rise once again; the simple argument being that he now has the time required to mould the team in accordance with his famously rigorous plans. The apparently favourable qualifying group draw should also aid Hodgson in building the team’s strength steadily, with away games to Poland and Ukraine posing the only substantial threat to England’s dominance of the group (although Montenegro should not be totally discounted either).

Clearly there is much work to be done in forming a competitive challenge for the latter stages of the World Cup in two years’ time. There also exist certain factors beyond Hodgson and co’s control though; namely a genuine dearth of world-class players (with only a very few capable of maturing into this status in such a timeframe), and the afflictions of the Premier League and Champions League on the players’ fitness levels and dedication to the national side.

Hodgson will now be looking to move to phase two of Operation Avoid National Humiliation

As one might expect at the start of a qualifying campaign, talk from within the squad is resolutely positive: Leighton Baines has spoken of the relaxed environment within the setup, while Oxlaide-Chamberlain has praised Hodgson’s encouragement of individual attacking flare from the younger members of the team.

England really should win the opening games against Moldova away tomorrow and Shevchenko-less Ukraine at home on Wednesday despite current injury problems ruling out Rooney, Carroll, Young and Ashley Cole (who may return against Ukraine).

If Hodgson is to cultivate a strong national side during the qualifiers, he’ll need to optimise the relatively limited footballing resources at his disposal. Given his obsession with shapes in training (which kind of makes him sound like a primary school maths teacher) he’ll now be looking to move to phase two of Operation Avoid National Humiliation by unleashing the shackles from the likes of Oxlaide-Chamberlain, Adam Johnson, Wilshere (eventually), Walcott, Welbeck and Milner (only joking).

Alongside this work, Hodgson’s main task will be to firmly resolve a set of selection predicaments in time for the World Cup:

Centre-backs:

Many people have lauded the Euro 2012 central defensive partnership of Terry and Lescott, but I remain unconvinced. Playing in such a negative way throughout the Euros suited the two men, with a rigid bank of four midfielders buffering the defensive line. Playing so deep meant Terry and Lescott’s absence of pace was only rarely exposed, and both had ample opportunity to show off their last-ditch defending expertise- hardly a positive sign for a defensive unit. If Terry plays, which, let’s be honest, he will unfortunately, he needs to be partnered by someone with the mobility to mop up all of his positional mess. On current form this season as well as his assured performance against Italy in England’s last game, Jagielka should get the nod above Lescott and Cahill.

Going purely on league form, Gerrard wouldn’t get a look-in

Cover for Cole: Bertrand or Baines?

Baines has proven himself as a reliable performer for many years now, but at the age of 27, it does seem time to prepare for life post-Cole in the long-term. Bertrand is well liked by Di Matteo, gaining more first-team opportunities and recently signing a new five year contract at Chelsea. With Cole absent through injury for tomorrow’s game, my pick, building for Brazil, would be Betrand at left-back.

Glen Johnson or Kyle Walker?

One is a marauding right-back relying on pace and strength to cover his own defensive frailties and the other is… well, the other is a younger, but probably superior version. I, like many England fans, was very excited to see the 2011-12 PFA Young Player of the Year Walker trialled for England in time for the Euros and gutted when his foot snapped on the final day of the season. Johnson’s Euros performances were mixed as usual, and I think it’s time to give Walker an opportunity to at least present his case. I admit the chances are, though, that the tried and partially trusted Johnson will start against Moldova. Incidentally, the fact I haven’t even included Micah Richards as an option says a lot about his last few months. Managers- other than Stuart Pearce- really don’t like him do they? You even get the feeling he only remains at City as a figurehead to give the dubious impression that home-grown talent is taken seriously at the club.

Joe Hart or Jack Butland?

Only joking.

The midfield and Gerrard’s role:

Going purely on league form, Gerrard wouldn’t get a look-in. Clearly though, as national captain, his starting place is pretty much guaranteed. Current-day Gerrard’s direct, occasionally fruitful but more often careless style of play detracts from the philosophy of ball retention that England will have to eventually adopt in order to be taken seriously at the highest level. Relying on good fitness to buzz around the pitch, the question is whether by 2014, a 34-year-old Gerrard will still be able to contribute anything worth contributing.

It’s resoundingly obvious that Wilshere is the real future of the midfield

The picture of England’s midfield options will be clearer once Wilshere has returned to action, but as it stands it would make a lot of sense to reinstate the much overlooked Michael Carrick to provide some reliable passing at the heart of the team. Tom Cleverley has made little impact so far this season, so is unlikely to start. It will also be interesting to see whether Rodwell is given much opportunity at Man City, or whether, like is inevitable with Scott Sinclair, he will spend most of his time on the bench during meaningful fixtures.

It’s resoundingly obvious that Wilshere is the real future of the midfield, but easing the likes of Cleverley and Rodwell into the first team setup during the qualifiers will help to spread the share of responsibility across the new generation rather than heaping all expectation on Wilshere. I also think Lampard can be used as an effective Scholes-esque pace-setter when needed during times of trouble during the campaign.

Wide players:

Ashley Young’s jelly-legged displays at the Euros were certainly disappointing, especially given his prior rise to prominence as the most impactful attacking player in the team, but I wouldn’t write him off as a serious contributor during the qualifiers just yet. In some good news for England fans, Adam Johnson will finally be able to play a full season of Premier League football- fitness permitting- after his switch to Sunderland, and will surely be back in the England frame shortly enough. Walcott will always provide a great option, but mostly from the bench I would imagine, while Aaron Lennon never quite seems to sustain good form for long enough to ingratiate himself to the national coach.

Welbeck or Carroll (i.e. passing game or long ball game)?

Like his team-mate Cleverley, Welbeck’s early season form is weak but he built up enough international credit with his performances in Poland and Ukraine. With Carroll out for up to a month, Welbeck will have the opportunity to establish himself as Rooney’s number one partner. I for one certainly back Welbeck over Carroll, not only because of individual preference but also because his selection indicates a greater commitment to ground-based interplay rather than long range frontman-seeking football. Although Defoe will start against Moldova, his prolific goalscoring record from the bench looks likely to count against him, and will be probably be utilised primarily as an impact striker once Rodellega’s studs have been safely removed from Rooney’s thigh and he’s back in action.

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