Friday, January 10, 2014

World Cup profiles - England

As any self respecting Scotsman that has lived previously in London knows, we are only about a month or so away from the red top tabloids beginning to trumpet England's prospects of winning the World Cup, World in Motion by New Order and Skinner and Baddiel will be all over the radio and Sportsweek will interview Sir Geoff Hirst and Peter Shilton constantly.

However, for the first time since England failed to qualify in 1994 there does appear to be far more realism about just how limited this current England squad is. So just how far can they go?

To kick off, England have a tough group and will probably have to beat one of either Uruguay or Italy  to qualify if one is to assume that Costa Rica will be the whipping boys. My very own Scotland were famously beaten by Costa Rica 1-0 at the 1990 World Cup but one would think England should be good enough to avoid that fate.

In the recent past, England have had many fine players, the likes of Shearer, Ferdinand, Scholes, Gerrard, Ashley Cole, Gary Neville and Michael Owen in his pomp would grace many teams at the highest level. So how good is the current crop?

Should Joe Hart be fit and re-find his best form then England have a fine top class keeper the equal of most at the tournament. Should however he continue to impersonate one of the Chuckle Brothers then  England have a serious problem as none of the back up keepers are proven nor of the required calibre.

England must be wishing that either Leighton Baines or Ashley Cole were right footed and could play in tandem on the left and right. Cole has been one of the few truly world class players that England possess but he is coming to the end and even Jose Mourinho seems to have lost a little faith.

Baines is a wonderful attacking option with his crossing and dead ball striking but he is suspect against the very best defensively. It doesn't always show up in the Premiership but he was found wanting in England's recent friendly defeat. Regardless, Hodgson has far bigger issues and left back will not be of paramount concern.

At right back, both Glenn Johnson and Kyle Walker are substandard defensively and will be in for a tough time against the better sides as their positional play is simply not good enough. Johnson will probably get the nod for the starting berth but it is a problem area for England.

Centre back
Hodgson's preferred pairing appears to be Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka. Both are good solid Premiership defenders but the reality is they are a level down from the likes of Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand in their prime.

Cahill has definitely benefitted from moving to Chelsea and playing in the Champions League but one would fear for this pairing against the pace and movement of the very best attacking players.

Whilst used all over the pitch for United, I firmly believe that Phil Jones' best position is at centre back and I think he will develop into a fine one. Whether he has enough experience (and fitness) to play for England regularly there yet is questionable however. His versatility will probably mean he remains a good bench option for Hodgson in Brazil.

Central midfield
In the past, England have had a plethora of great central midfielders, Paul Gascoigne, Paul Ince, Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard and the problem for the past decade has simply been trying to get the right blend.

Gerrard and Lampard remain but they are fading forces although Gerrard can still contribute fully this Summer. Lampard may have to make do with coming off the bench to try to rescue games for England.

Jack Wilshire remains an enigma with his place in the centre for Arsenal even being in jeopardy this season. His injury problems have been horrendous and for the time being it seems that both Wenger and Hodgson have lost some faith in him. A fit and firing Wilshire would be a huge plus for England this Summer.

Michael Carrick had a fine season for United last year but he has had injury problems again this season. If England were to play a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 then he would be a fine choice for a holding role. He is not the most glamorous of players but his teammates always value his contribution.

A lack of mobility against passing and movement leaves him vulnerable defensively however.

I have to say I am not a fan of either James Milner or Tom Cleverley and like Carrick, when they are playing top class players with top class movement, they are left as passengers with a slight resemblance to wheely bins in white shirts.

Jordan Henderson and Ross Barkley both appear to be making late runs at the squad along with Adam Lallana. Of the three only Barkley to me appears to have the potential to influence a World Cup game at the sharp end of things and should be worth a gamble.

Gascoigne made a late run at Italia '90 and came a hair's breadth from inspiring England into the final.

Wide/attacking players
Whilst it is not entirely clear what formation Hodgson will employ, he does have options further up the pitch.

Andros Townsend for the record is NOT yet a world beater. He has a lot of potential but he is not England's saviour regardless of what the red tops would have you believe. His recent performances for Spurs have been fairly mediocre. If expectations are managed, he could contribute well for England this Summer however.

Jay Rodriguez for me does not look top class although he is undoubtedly a good player. Aaron Lennon may be an interesting option if he is fit and whilst he can be woefully wasteful he can also terrorise teams with his pace and he has an uncanny knack of often bringing balance to a team with his natural width. May be another good option off the bench.

Another player who will certainly come in to contention is Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain. He has been a favourite of Hodgson in the past and should he get himself fit he could certainly find himself in the reckoning for one of the wide berths. He is another pacey and direct player.

Theo Walcott has sadly been ruled out of the tournament - he appears to have some kind of World Cup curse - but in Daniel Sturridge and Danny Wellbeck, Hodgson has two young strikers who offer movement, pace, flexibility and goals.

Ashley Young's poor club form would appear to rule him out of the starting reckoning for England but his United teammate Wayne Rooney will again be England's talisman this Summer. Since his initial burst in Portugal 2004, Rooney has failed to fire at a major tournament with either injury, loss of form through being in poor condition or simply England not qualifying to blame.

Rooney has no doubt had a fine career but if he really wants to be remembered as a great and not just someone who earned 300K a week then Brazil is the time for him to finally produce the goods. We have seen in the past that a single player can inspire an otherwise average team and much of England's hopes could rest on England's premier granny fancier.

My own view is that England could qualify from their group but it will be tough. Uruguay are not for me an elite team but they are playing on their own continent and Cavani and Suarez will a formidable pair to play against. Chile showed up England's deficiencies badly recently and Uruguay will be a tough test.

England must focus on beating both them and Costa Rica as Italy will be tough opposition and England have a poor record against them.

If England do get through the group then I feel unfortunately that they will simply be left waiting for one of the better teams to put them out of their inevitable misery. I simply don't see England as in any way capable of challenging for the tournament this time around and a quarter final berth would be an amazing achievement in my view.

In terms of the formation that Hodgson should employ I would urge him to employ a system that allows some fluidity for the attacking players and some protection for the central defenders. Looking at the players that England have, either a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 looks best to me. I would have Hart in goal, a back four of Johnson, Jagielka, Cahill and either Cole or Baines depending on who looks best come June.

In front of them I would employ two sitting players, one of whom would be a more disciplined and less leggy Steven Gerrard. The other would be one of either Carrick, Phil Jones (if you were feeling ultra defensive and were facing a Messi etc) or possibly Jack Wilshire in a deep lying playmaker role.

With the exception of Ashley Cole, none of England's fullbacks are overly defense minded so two holding players would assist in allowing them to bomb forwards.

Playing in a more free central role (hence it's either a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 depending on how far up that player pushes, the latter system possibly requiring the wide players to do more defensive work) I would either have Wilshire (if not in the deep lying role obviously) or possibly Ross Barkley if his form continues for Everton.

You could alternatively push Gerrard further forward, the whole point of the system being the players  are interchangeable whilst offering protection for a back four that may require it with the two holding players at all times.

I'd then have a front three of Sturridge and Wellbeck offering wide support to Wayne Rooney. The two of them or maybe even the three of them being interchangeable. The likes of Aaron Lennon, Oxlaide-Chamberlain and Andros Townsend provide a more 'midfield' option in the wider positions depending on the nature of the game and opposition.

England over the years have become far too rigid since Glenn Hoddle left his post. All the top teams are employing fluid fast moving systems and with the likes of Barkley, Wilshire, Sturridge, Wellbeck, Rooney, Lennon and Townsend they have pacey, attack minded and mobile players, England must play to what strengths they have.

As mentioned, England could get out of their group but to do so they will almost certainly have to beat Costa Rica and Uruguay or get one hell of a result against Italy - No Nonsense.