With England’s perhaps inevitable early World Cup exit all but sealed, the post-tournament post-mortem can begin in earnest. The young players selected in this England squad gave great cause for optimism both pre-tournament and following a gutsy performance in defeat to Italy, and this exit should not dampen down that optimism.
However, while future options in the attacking third look positive, there are many areas of concern.
Joe Hart cannot be blamed for any of the four goals which England have conceded so far in this World Cup, and has proven to be England’s most reliable goalkeeper in recent memory. Hart has done exceptionally well to recover both in terms of form, but also mentally from a shaky start to the season with Manchester City, and his subsequent dropping from the starting eleven, to prove to be a crucial part of both a title winning domestic side, and this England teams’ present and future.
With Joe Hart seemingly set in the England number one jersey for the next seven or eight years, goalkeeper is not a primary concern, especially with Fraser Forster, who has proven his worth for Celtic both in the Scottish Premier League and in the UEFA Champions League, as a solid number two. The third goalkeeping option, currently occupied by Ben Foster, could quite easily be taken by Stoke’s Jack Butland, providing he finds regular first team football and begins to fulfil his undoubted potential.
When you only take one recognised right back, with James Milner being tested as an alternative, you know there are issues. Glen Johnson is the current occupant of this role; however his defensive capabilities have been questioned for many a year now. Undeniably, Johnson offers an attacking threat going forward, as evidenced by his run and cross for Rooney’s goal against Uruguay, but primary role for a full back should be to defend, and unfortunately Johnson simply does not cut the mustard and cannot realistically be seen as the future for England, if the national team wishes to advance.
The problem is however, the lack of alternatives. Kyle Walker, injured for this World Cup, has the same issues. Walker can be very good going forward but too often falls asleep when called to defend. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, who are both currently with the England squad, have featured on occasion at right back for Manchester United. Neither though has ever looked entirely comfortable in that position and are both more suited to a centre back role. One possible candidate that may push his way into England reckoning is Jon Flanagan of Liverpool.
At 21 Flanagan is definitely one for the future and has impressed, often at left back, for Liverpool. At 77% Flanagan’s tackle success rate last season looks promising, however his ‘duels won’ record is down below 60% which is a cause for concern, especially if he is to make the step up to international level. There are slim pickings though at right back and besides Flanagan, perhaps only Calum Chambers of Southampton has the potential to become an England regular.
At just 19, Chambers has already ousted fellow Englishman Nathaniel Clyne to start regularly at club level, and must now be considered for either Euro 2016, or definitely for Russia 2018.
The initial confidence in England’s bright left back options pre-tournament has been curtailed somewhat, by some shaky defensive performances from Leighton Baines. Baines is a very good Premier League left back and showed glimpses of his attacking prowess and delivery against Uruguay, but was found wanting defensively against Italy especially.
He is however relatively new to international football and should be given the opportunity to adapt to the different pressures of international football. Behind Baines is the highly promising Luke Shaw, who is coveted by many top Premier League sides. At the tender age of 18, Shaw has already cemented his position as Southampton’s first choice left back and England’s number two left back and gives England fans at least one cause for optimism.
England have been found wanting at centre back in this tournament, and while many will lament the lack of John Terry at the heart of the England back line, it must be pointed out that the defending shown four years ago, with John Terry starting, was no better. At the past two World Cups England have been undone by a long ball over the top, and there is no excuse for that. England have serious issues at centre back.
Gary Cahill has looked relatively solid for club and country and will most likely retain his place, however Phil Jagielka has looked shaky, and arguably at fault for both Uruguay goals. At 31 also, Jagielka cannot be seen as England’s future. Much was made a few years ago about Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, when they both moved to Old Trafford. The pair were mooted as the future of England and Manchester United’s defence, however for one reason or another, mainly injury in Phil Jones’ case, that promise has not come to fruition.
Hopefully from and England perspective, one or both of Jones and Smalling, play regularly next season under Louis van Gaal, given the moving on of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. Should neither of those two reach their potential nor fill the void, then the barrel will have to be scraped. There have been calls for the likes of Curtis Davies, Ryan Shawcross and Steven Caulker, but none of these have enough quality to play at international level.
The only avenue of promise appears once again on Merseyside with Everton’s John Stones. He has looked impressive in his handful of Everton appearances, and with Roberto Martinez in charge he can be sure of making many more. Stones could well be the future for England at centre back, but it is far too early to pin the hopes of a nation on him.
The English defence were not helped by the lack of protection afforded to them by the midfield of Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson, and that is not necessarily a criticism of the two players, as neither of holding midfielders by trade. The fact is that England do not have a viable holding midfield option to call upon at this moment in time. Many people will point to Gareth Barry and Michael Carrick at this point, but they are simply not the future nor of the required standard.
Gareth Barry played very well last season for Everton, but at 33 he will not be around for the next tournament, and it was right that he was not called up for this tournament, given how he was overwhelmingly found out at international level in South Africa. Barry’s ‘trudging through mud’ act behind Mesut Ozil is my overbearing memory of a horrific tournament for England. Michael Carrick was an option for England, and had this tournament occurred in 2013, he would probably have gone, however he, along with most players at Old Trafford, had a shocking season last year, failing to provide a solitary through ball let alone assist.
Michael Carrick is very good at keeping the play ticking over and his five yard side-ways passes are sublime, but ask him to split a defence or break up play and time and again he is found wanting. The fact is though there is no holding midfielder available to England. Jack Rodwell and Josh McEachran looked good prospects though Man City and Chelsea have ruined both players development, which provides concern for Nathaniel Chalobah, who has the potential to step into the breach.
England have a number of good midfield prospects such as Derby’s Will Hughes and Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse, but none in the mould of Owen Hargreaves, England’s last genuine holding midfielder.
Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley and Jordan Henderson will be in and around the squad for the foreseeable future, while James Milner’s versatility could prove useful centrally, especially as Frank Lampard and possibly Steven Gerrard will have to be replaced for the beginning of Euro 2016 qualification.
Behind the striker, England have an abundance of options and is the area of the side with most promise. Sterling, Barkley, Welbeck and Lallana have shown their potential. Oxlade-Chamberlain will also prove to be a key member of the side, plus of course Theo Walcott, Jay Rodriguez and perhaps Andros Townsend will return after injury, there is also Wayne Rooney, who proved against Uruguay that when played centrally, is still England’s biggest threat.
All of the aforementioned players are still young and will be there or thereabouts when the Euro 2016 squad is announced (Should England qualify of course).
I don’t think there is any doubt that in terms of out and out striker, that Daniel Sturridge is first choice for England, with Rooney and Welbeck both capable of filling that position when required. It is doubtful that Rickie Lambert will be a part of a Euro 2016 squad, so one more striker needs to be found. Jay Rodriguez could fill that role, though he has played more on the wing for Southampton in recent seasons, though Lambert’s Southampton exit may see Rodriguez move more central next season.
Dominic Solanke and Patrick Roberts both grabbed a number of goals in the recent European U17 Championships, and Saido Berahino has bagged a few at U21 level, but no-one is really banging on the door. However with the options England already have, this position is not a crucial cause for concern.
Roy Hodgson’s position may come under question, especially if England lose to Costa Rica on Tuesday, but for me there is nothing to be gained in relieving him of his duties. Hodgson has begun the rebuilding process following the turmoil of Fabio Capello’s reign, and has injected a pace and attacking excitement devoid in many an England side of the past. I would stick with Hodgson until the end of the European Championships, then if need be, turn to a Roberto Martinez type manager.
The future of the England side looks to be a mixed bag. Very promising in the attacking positions with several options for the front four positions, but crucially lacking defensively, with a worrying lack of talent evident. A future back four of Flanagan, Jones, Stones and Shaw may well prove a top international back four, the potential is there, but there are severe reservations and a lack of back up even if these four do succeed.
England’s attack will see them through qualifying for tournaments, but in major International competition, more often than not, it’s the team who defends the best, who wins.
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