England: Drop Liverpool Legend & Make Milner Captain
For the large part, Roy Hodgson is actually taking England in the right direction. He may not have said so explicitly, and it would be suicidal for a man to do so in his position given the tabloid media in this country, but Hodgson is well aware that England have limits, and won’t be winning the upcoming World Cup.
That said, however, there are still a few glaring changes that need to be made at the heart of this England side in order to be able to truly treat this tournament as a progressive experiment and learning curve. Two players that still have a place in the squad, but no longer in the starting eleven, are Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard.
In the recent friendly against Peru, the tempo England played at was subdued, with Hodgson shifting the formation to a more conservative 4-2-3-1, with Rooney in the proverbial hole, and the first midfield band made up of a Liverpool based partnership of Gerrard and Henderson, neither of whom had a particularly good night.
As far as the tempo is concerned, part of me thinks it was a deliberate ploy form Roy Hodgson on the night with the game against Italy in Manaus playing on his mind. Allowing his side to learn how to play effectively whilst not overexerting themselves, the game plan may be the same as the one we see in a few weeks time to counteract the temperature of the Amazonian rainforest.
Alternatively, of course, England may have just been poor in possession, which is hardly a stretch of the imagination, either.
One thing we’re sure of, injury permitting, is the back five we’ll be seeing played at every given opportunity. Joe Hart picks himself at this stage after ending the season well domestically, although his current array of awful advertisements and endorsements would count against him if there were any justice in the world.
Ashley Cole absent, Leighton Baines is the senior left-back, with Luke Shaw no more than an understudy. Glen Johnson has right-back sewn up too given the unfortunate injury to Kyle Walker, who was actually having a promising season until he picked up the knock. Jagielka and Cahill are the definite centre-back partnership, although it’d be fair to say that’s as much to do with necessity as it is to do with choice.
The midfield three that currently begs selection given the style of football required to prosper in tournament football is made up of Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana pressing in a more advanced position with James Milner slightly behind them. Missing out would be Steven Gerrard, and lesser so Jack Wilshere, who would both be options from the bench.
The reason behind such a selection is simple: commitment, intelligence and stamina. England have regularly failed to keep the ball effectively in recent years, or limited the expansiveness of their opponents when defending. The three man midfield selected have the ability to work in unison as a dedicated unit, and are multi-faceted in a manner Gerrard and Wilshere just aren’t.
Even though his season for Liverpool has been relatively good, Gerrard’s presence next to Henderson seems to have an impact on the freedom with which he’s willing to play, and often when his captain is absent, Henderson is much more effective and confident, influencing the game much more directly, rather than deferring to his superior.
Gerrard’s reinvention this season has been impressive, but at the same time, somewhat overstated. The failings that have always been present in his game still remain: his positional discipline is often entirely abandoned, his tendency to play unsuccessful and uncalled for long passes when the better pass available is much more simple continues to frustrate, and as shown against Chelsea after his infamous mistake, his desire to constantly be the sole inspiration for attacking impetus when his role no longer allows him to results in wasted chance after wasted chance, usually because a speculative long range strike has interrupted a promising move forward.
Adam Lallana can operate much in the same way as he does at club level, understanding the difference between defensive responsibilities when not in possession and clever attacking football as part of an attacking unit when needed, too. The energy and ability to tirelessly press that he, Milner and Henderson share is exactly what is required against Italy to limit the impact of Andrea Pirlo on the game. Between them, they can close him down and take turns marking him out of the game in a manner other midfields in the squad aren’t able to.
James Milner, in many ways, is the embodiment of everything England need to be in this tournament. Professional, committed, understated, selfless and dedicated to the cause, as far as I’m concerned, he’s probably the best candidate to be the captain we have available. The Lad Bible might get plenty of ‘bantz’ out of calling him boring, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s a lot to be said for the way in which Milner conducts himself personally and professionally, and if that attitude were able to be transferred to his England teammates, we’d have a lot less concern about the mentality of the men wearing the shirt. Hugely underrated technically - actually to a somewhat embarrassing extent - Milner has the ability to play as attacking outlet and flair playmaker when needed, but his managers often misconstrue his willingness to perform roles assigned and instead use him in a negative manner, but rest assured, James Milner has a lot more than just an ‘engine’ up his sleeve.
Milner, admittedly, isn’t the first choice to be the base of the midfield, but he’s be the best man available for the job from the squad Hodgson has selected to take with him. Had he had a better season, or had been more willing to be apart of the squad in a lesser capacity, Michael Carrick would be ideal for the position, but for one reason or another, he hasn’t been included in the squad. Very much a risk and outside bet, the only other player wit the skill set to play such a role is Tom Huddlestone, who’d best career performances came in the Champions League for Tottenham, but his lack of pace and questionable commitment count against him overwhelmingly.
England’s most in form forward is unarguable Daniel Sturridge, and he showed his ability to transform his club form to his country with his fantastic opening goal against Peru in the recent friendly. With the ability to seamlessly play across any of the positions across the front three whilst still being effective, Sturridge has earned his chance to prove himself on the world stage, and nobody, not even Wayne Rooney, can argue with that. He’s scored all types of goals this season from various ranges, and the type of football Liverpool have played this season has taught him how to hold the ball and interact effectively with his supporting players and manipulate space with effective off the ball running.
Another player who deserves a chance form the start is again from Liverpool’s prolific forward line, this time in the form of Raheem Sterling on the wing. Which wing, however, isn’t really important. His ability to play from either side, whilst also showing the will to track back and press effectively should stand his chances in good stead, with his new found confidence in front of goal another clear positive. Natural width and effective wing play is a huge feather in England’s cap for the World Cup, with pace and incisiveness often key attributes in winning matches on the international stage. His pre-existing relationship with Henderson, Johnson and Sturridge will also be favourable.
The other wing position was a straight shootout between Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain, and I changed my mind more times than I thought I would convincing myself who I would start. The deciding factor was Welbeck’s willingness to effectively press defensively, as well as his more natural ability to take up a position anywhere across the front three – players who can interchange positions seamlessly are invaluable in attacking situations, and the skill that separates your Arjen Robben’s from your Adam Johnson’s at this level.
Welbeck has previous successes in helping nullify deeper-lying playmakers in the Pirlo mould, as he demonstrated by tirelessly pressing Xabi Alonso in the second leg of Manchester United’s tie against Real Madrid in the 2013 Champions League round of 16.
England aren’t going to win the World Cup this summer, but there’s no reason the experience can’t be used positively to build towards the future. Progressive football, using progressive tactics, selecting players on merit and technical ability rather than reputation and fame is a huge step in the right direction for a national football set-up which has been playing catch-up both on and off the field for closing on fifty years. England need to grow to become a side defined by their ability as a team, rather than their reliance on individuals.
This tabloid driven talismanic crutch England repeatedly rest upon will never result in improvement, and the sooner the FA and the mislead fans stuck in the past at home realise that, the better.