Wednesday night’s friendly against Denmark represents England manager Roy Hodgson’s last chance to examine his options before naming his provisional 30-man squad for the World Cup. Here are five ideas he could experiment with at Wembley…
1. Pairing Steven Gerrard with Jack Wilshere
Theoretically, based on the roles the pair perform for their club sides, partnering his two most creative midfielders represents a fantastic option for Hodgson. Brendan Rodgers has organised his Liverpool side in a multitude of formations this season, but one constant has been the deployment of his captain in a deeper midfield role. At the Emirates, Wilshere, having occupied all three of the advanced play-maker roles during the early part of the season, has since returned to the deeper position in which he made his name. Either Mikel Arteta or Mathieu Flamini provide the security for the 22-year-old to drive forward and dictate matches; something that an on-form Wilshere can do more effectively than anyone else in Hodgson’s ranks.
However, he main draw-back of fielding the pair together is their collective lack of discipline, both positionally and in the tackle. In recent weeks, Gerrard’s lack of tactical awareness has left Liverpool’s back four exposed, most notably as Aston Villa and Swansea netted five goals across their respective matches at Anfield. Meanwhile, there is a feeling amongst regular observers of Arsenal that Wilshere’s cavalier style often leaves his midfield partner stranded. Furthermore, the 22-year-old’s willingness to engage in individual spats on the pitch will be a worry for Hodgson, as will what the 66 year old saw in Gerrard’s last two outings against the Gunners. In last month’s Premier League encounter, with Liverpool 5-0 up and cruising, Gerrard dived into an inexplicably reckless challenge on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, which saw Arsenal awarded a consolation penalty. Eight days later, the 33-year-old was fortunate to escape a red card for an incident involving the same player, in an FA Cup match.
Hodgson, fully aware of the need for discipline on the international stage, will be very keen to eradicate such deficiencies. However, if he succeeds in taming the pair, the rewards could be sensational. Gerrard’s best years are undoubtedly behind him, but he will certainly provide a combative shield for his back-line, while his passing range remains exceptional. And it was with Gerrard in the holding role that Wilshere put in his best performance in an England shirt, during a 2-1 Wembley win over Brazil, in 2012. The play-maker illuminated the National Stadium, showcasing his inimitable blend of intensity and panache at a level of performance that his manager will hope to see him replicate on a more regular basis.
On that occasion, the pair were joined in a 4-1-4-1 system by Tom Cleverley, but the Manchester United man’s demise, coupled with the remarkable form of Daniel Sturridge, mean that deploying the pair behind Wayne Rooney in a 4-4-1-1 would likely be Hodgson’s preferred choice. If Gerrard and Wilshere can improve their discipline, Wednesday’s match could see the birth of a dynamic, combative and creative partnership, capable of driving England to success in Brazil.
2. Attacking like Liverpool
The Anfield club have netted more goals than any other Premier League side (73), winning many plaudits for their breath-taking style of play. Tantalisingly for Roy Hodgson, he has four of the in-form side’s front six at his disposal; Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge. What’s more, the former West Brom boss is able to cast Jack Wilshere in the role of advanced midfielder Phillipe Coutinho and talisman Wayne Rooney as a not too startlingly pale imitation of the irrepressible Luis Suarez.
This season has seen Brendan Rodgers divert from his possession-based philosophy, having realised that a direct style best suits his explosive attackers. In the demolitions of Everton and Arsenal, Liverpool had the minority of the ball, but used their share with ruthless efficiency. England are notoriously poor at retaining possession, so imitating this template could be perfect for them, as they search for a formula that can see them overcome the strongest sides on the planet.
To shoe-horn his most potent attacking weapons into one team, Brendan Rodgers has fielded both Suarez and Sturridge on the right of the front three, and similar selflessness would be required from Rooney or his strike partner if Hodgson’s ‘Liverpool 2.0′ were to be successful. However, one of the most striking aspects of the current England squad is each player’s willingness to diligently perform in whichever role they’re cast. The November friendlies against Chile and Germany saw the Three Lions make a disjointed attempt at a high-tempo proactive pressing game, and if Hodgson decides that the quickest way to develop it is to copy Rodgers’ template, the signs look promising.
3. Give youth a chance
Don’t worry, this isn’t another ludicrous call for Roy Hodgson to jettison every member of his squad aged 30 or over, replacing the “has-beens” with 23 young players, in all their raw and naive glory.
However, 14 of his 30 man party are still in single figures in terms of caps, and there is a very real chance that players such as Luke Shaw (no caps), Raheem Sterling (1), Ross Barkley (3) and Jordan Henderson (7) will play a major part in Brazil. The World Cup is no place to be learning on the job, so it is imperative that Hodgson takes every available opportunity to expose his starlets to the international arena, starting on Wednesday.
4. Select two out-and-out wingers
James Milner and Danny Welbeck were frequently selected on the flanks during the qualification period, as Hodgson prioritised discipline over flair. However, as previously mentioned, England’s failure to keep the ball forces them into a counter-attacking style, which means they desperately need an effective outlet when they do recover posession. Even without the injured Theo Walcott, Hodgson’s squad still contains wide-men capable of providing a greater threat on the break than the Manchester-based duo.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s fine form upon his return from injury has gone some way to compensate Arsene Wenger for the loss of Walcott, and the quality of Sterling’s recent performances has already been discussed. Andros Townsend’s brazen style was a major weapon as England sealed qualification with wins against Montenegro and Poland, while Jay Rodriguez has bagged 10 goals from Southampton’s left flank.
Group stage opponents Italy and Uruguay rely greatly on their full-backs to provide width, which might ensure Hodgson sticks to his ‘safety-first’ policy when selecting his wide-men. However, Wednesday’s match provides the perfect occasion on which to explore what more expansive choices can bring to his side. Each of the aforementioned quartet (which neglected to mention in-form Adam Lallana and of course the threat Sturridge or Rooney could provide from a wide area) are disciplined and hard-working enough to provide adequate protection for their full-back, while doing more to carry the fight to the opposition.
5. Playing without Wayne Rooney
Although England’s top goalscorer in qualifying is still a vitally important member of the squad, the reality is that it is ten years since Rooney arrived at a major tournament without a question mark over his fitness and form. Hodgson’s recently expressed that he hoped this summer’s showpiece would finally see the frontman “explode” on the global scene, which provides rather conclusive proof that, if fit, the Manchester United man will take to the pitch in Manaus, on June 14th.
However, every England side since Rooney’s emergence in 2004 have been dangerously reliant on the Liverpudlian, looking startlingly bereft of belief and ideas when their talisman has made a premature exit from proceedings or struggled for form. Therefore, it could be worthwhile for Roy Hodgson to use at least half of Wednesday’s match to examine his Plan B.
In Rooney’s absence, the 66-year-old would have two choices. If he stuck with a 4-4-1-1 system, the marauding Jack Wilshere, intelligent Ross Barkley and athletic Jordan Henderson are just three of the former Fulham boss’ options in the hole; none of which would be disastrous. Alternatively, the 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 exhibited at home to Brazil could make a return, with Michael Carrick, Frank Lampard and Adam Lallana among the candidates to fill the void. Again, such a scenario shouldn’t see England outclassed.
It is worth remembering that Rooney’s abdication of his responsibility to man-mark Andrea Pirlo afforded the mercurial Italian the freedom to dictate England’s Euro 2012 quarter final clash with Cesare Prandelli’s men. Greater discipline would almost certainly have seen the Liverpudlian’s superior athleticism dominate Pirlo, allowing England to impose themselves on the game. Given Daniel Sturridge’s outstanding goal-scoring form, and the emergence of creative players who can press more effectively and diligently in the most advanced midfield role, maybe Roy Hodgson will consider just how important Wayne Rooney really is to this England side.