England kick off their Euro 2016 campaign against Russia at Marseille’s Stade Velodrome on Saturday night. Roy Hodgson’s men will go into the game on the back of winning all three warm-up matches, albeit in lacklustre fashion, as well as qualifying for the tournament with a 100% record.
The fact that Raheem Sterling is the only recognised winger in the 23-man squad suggests that Hodgson will favour the 4-4-2 system with a diamond in midfield, despite it looking flawed in the 1-0 win over ten-man Portugal.
Here are the five players who should definitely be in the starting XI for the Three Lions to give them the best chance of making a positive start to the tournament.
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John Stones showed encouraging signs in the preparation games after a tough and frustrating season with Everton and should be picked to partner Chris Smalling at the heart of the English defence instead of Chelsea’s Gary Cahill.
Whilst Michael Owen’s claims that the 22-year-old would “walk into the Barcelona team” were over the top to say the least, Stones is a footballing centre-back by nature and extremely confident in possession. In fact, his biggest problem isn’t his defending, it’s overcomplicating the game and overplaying in certain situations with the ball at his feet.
Like Daley Blind did last season at club level, Stones would allow Smalling to play as the right-sided centre-half because of the Everton starlet’s technical qualities. This is where Smalling is most comfortable, but when the Man United man is paired with Cahill he has to play as the left-sided central defender instead and looks less assured on the ball.
Some people feel that Stones is vastly overrated but Euro 2016 offers him the perfect opportunity to step up and prove that he can go on to be a top-class defender in the years ahead.
Eric Dier has developed into a fine defensive midfielder at Tottenham and offers excellent protection in front of England’s back four, which didn’t look overly impressive in the three warm-up fixtures. The 22-year-old is a physical, combative presence in the middle of the park who will give the more attacking players the freedom to get forward and express themselves.
Dele Alli was in exceptional form for Tottenham before suspension brought his season to a premature end. The PFA Young Player of the Year can operate in central midfield or in a more advanced role as a number ten, but wherever he plays he has the talent and quality to make the difference for England.
The exciting 20-year-old needs to be given the licence by Hodgson to push forward and shouldn’t be forced to constrain his natural game. If he finds space in between the lines, he will create serious problems for Russia with his imagination, creativity and unquestionable skill.
Wayne Rooney is still one of the country’s most gifted footballers and is a certainty to lead out the Three Lions on Saturday. England’s all-time leading goalscorer proved that he can finish when he drilled home his 52nd international goal against Australia within ten minutes of coming on.
The 30-year-old can still lead the line if needed to, and Louis van Gaal used his skipper as a deep-lying central midfielder towards the end of Manchester United’s season, but his best position is just off the main striker. This is where Rooney can get on the ball, have the biggest influence on games, and utilise his vision, goalscoring ability and tremendous range of passing.
The England captain also has a wealth of experience and, having burst onto the international scene at Euro 2004, he knows what the young players will go through and can manage them through the game.
With Rooney set to play slightly deeper in the rest of his career, Harry Kane is now England’s number one centre-forward. The 22-year-old kicked off the preparations for the Euros by netting the opening goal against Turkey last month and finished the season as the Premier League’s top scorer with 25 goals.
Kane works hard, his movement and willingness to run in behind defences is impressive for such a big man, and he is an incredibly accurate shooter. Most importantly, the striker never hesitates to shoot and test the opposition goalkeeper, which is something this England side desperately need – and when he does, he usually finds the back of the net.
In all likelihood, Hodgson will probably opt for the more experienced Cahill to start ahead of Stones, despite the fact that the 30-year-old has been exposed defensively by top-class centre-forwards in previous tournaments.
Also, many people had waited for a very long time to see Rooney play in behind Kane and Vardy, but against Portugal it simply didn’t work. If they weren’t getting in each other’s way, they were doing too much defensive work, so against Russia Hodgson must find a way to fit all of his attacking talents effectively into one team.
What should be England's starting XI for their Euro 2016 opener? Leave YOUR thoughts in the comments box below!