As the dust settles on what must surely (on paper at least) be considered one of England’s best ever qualifying campaigns, commentators and pundits are now racing to answer some tricky questions; what did we learn from the games? Are England now in reasonable shape for the tournament? How far can they go? Can they even win it?!
Unfortunately it’s a case of ‘almost certainly not’ as far as that last one is concerned, but there are a few issues that require slightly more than a simple rebuttal.
Here’s my humble take on what Roy & co. may have taken from the last 9 games…
The team has not been properly tested yet – Aside from some self-inflicted pressure in Slovenia when the defence capitulated alarmingly easily twice and stood aside like a yawning whale for the home side to waltz through and score, actual pressure during games has been rare.
In fact, the friendlies have given us much more tension and pressure, with a cauldron-like atmosphere in Glasgow last year testing the players mettle before going to Italy in the spring and facing a growing and confident Azurri. In this respect, the friendlies against Spain and France later this month, and Germany early next year, will tell us a lot more about how the players can handle big games. Especially the defence, which takes me neatly onto point two…..
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This defence does not inspire tremendous confidence – after the glory-years of Terry, Ferdinand, Neville and Cole, this England defence is still a real work in progress. Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka did not look altogether convincing at the World Cup and it is hard to see how they can have improved given the one-sided nature of the qualifying games. Practice, and plenty of it, against the worlds best teams is vital ahead of the summer.
But the strike force does – any team that can have Daniel Sturridge consistently out of the side and still not look too short of strikers is clearly a force to be reckoned with. With Rooney, Kane, Welbeck and Sturridge all strikers to be feared in the Premier League, and back up including Danny Ings, Jamie Vardy and possibly Charlie Austin, Hodgson can feel confident in how his side looks going forward.
The wingers don’t look too shabby either – depending how the team lines up in France next year, the wingers could either be part of a midfield four or three up front. Whatever the formation, they deserve respect from the opposition. Townsend, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott and Sterling all have the capability to frighten the life out of defences with their pace, and they can all finish if given the opportunity as well.
But Roy must sort out the centre of midfield before it’s too late – Henderson, Lallana, Barkley, Carrick, Delph, Wilshere…… Who is England’s first choice centre midfield pairing?! None of the players mentioned above have let the side down, but then the opposition they’ve been playing against have made most games a stroll in the park.
Depending on whether Roy feels like sitting in and countering or going on the offensive, he can set up a different side, which must be looked at as a positive. However, a little continuity might be nice.
Barkley must play a key role – worthy of an article in itself, this debate might just decide how far England go next year. If Hodgson can conquer his natural conservatism and trust the talented playmaker from the start, he could reward them in spectacular style. His early-season performances for Everton show his startling ability and promise. Now is the time for him to realise that potential.
Hodgson manages best when he lets exciting young talent loose – having previously mentioned that England must not rely on their defence for too much in the tournament, Hodgson must realise that the best form of defence is attack, and let his forwards take it to the opposition.
We have to appreciate exciting qualifiers when they come around – due to the ranking system, games during qualifying do tend to be dull, cagey affairs against a side of limited ability. That’s why the games against Scotland before the 2018 World Cup will be so enjoyable – the passion of that rivalry remains undimmed by time.
There are too many teams in these qualifiers – qualifying for a major tournament should never be a boring chore, but that’s exactly what this campaign turned into. FIFA and UEFA must look long and hard about whether the minnows who now sup at the same table as the worlds finest deserve their automatic place there.
Despite that, it’s going to be a great tournament! After such a long build up (around 13 months by the time the playoffs are decided), it’ll be nice to see the groups, start to plot potential routes to the final and get down to the serious business of acquiring wall charts and England car flags like there’s no tomorrow.
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