The diamond midfield, first installed by Roy Hodgson for a 2-0 victory over Switzerland, a physical funnel of quintessentially English work-rate, aggression and determination, is unquestionably England‘s tactical future. In fact, in the absence of a top class winger since Chris Waddle’s brand of off-beat, double-footed wide-play in the early 1990s, the formation should have been introduced and convicted to a long time ago.
It’s a system that plays to our natural strengths and hides our many intrinsic weaknesses, particularly the Three Lions’ seemingly eternal inability to produce flamboyant wide men of international standard compared to our endless supply of box-to-box all-action centre-mids, and thus could well provide the ‘national identity’ many have accused England of lacking for the best part of twenty years.
It also allows for two up front – three when the No.10 joins in as Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana have done to positive effect already – which, in theory, should end the days of Wayne Rooney finding himself isolated in attack, surrounded by five defenders with no support in sight, as well as giving licence for full-backs to roam forward – the philosophical direction football appears to be heading in as the Gary Nevilles and Herman Hreidarssons are left behind.
Yet, if there’s one niggling doubt with the diamond, it’s that all the components don’t quite fit. Or rather, the components available require modification by the time England face some genuinely competitive opposition at Euro 2016 – particularly, the role of Jack Wilshere at the base of midfield.
Traditionally, the holding role in England has only ever meant one thing – breaking up attacks and moving the ball on to someone who knows what they’re doing. Gareth Barry, Phil Neville, Scott Parker and Owen Hargreaves are just a few who have attempted to replicate the services Claude Makelele provided for Chelsea between 2003-2008, in a manner so impressive the position is now referred to throughout the Premier League and yonder as ‘the Makelele role’.
I have no dispute with the Arsenal star’s limited defensive awareness, grit or natural physicality – especially with Jordan Henderson and Fabian Delph, two tenacious pitbulls committed equally to defence and attack, providing protection and athleticism on either side of him.
In fact, Wilshere’s clash with English preconceptions of the holding role makes him more in line with what can be witnessed on the continent; Segio Busquets at Barcelona, Bastian Schweinsteiger at Bayern Munich, Xabi Alonso (until this summer) at Real Madrid, and of course, the undisputed master of controlling games from that unique deep-lying pocket, Juventus’ Andrea Pirlo.
The first attempt against Switzerland was a little more hit and miss, but Wilshere’s mixed-range passing game, combining the long and cultured with the short and snappy, and his diversification of tempo, stood out as England plodded their way past San Marino and Estonia.
It brought a positive change compared to England’s previously more laboured manner of keeping the ball, such as Steven Gerrard attempting 70-yard pings or the defence endlessly shuffling it around between themselves without any distinct purpose or groove.
Against both San Marino and Estonia, England recorded 78% possession. Wilshere was a major part of that, as expected, creating five chances and making 101 touches against the Estonians. But neither side truly tested the Arsenal midfielder’s greatest weakness in that role – his entrenched desire to join the attack and run with the ball.
If Steven Gerrard was England’s quarter-back, Jack Wilshere’s the running-back, to paraphrase Adam Bate of Sky Sports’ excellent analogy. He completed six successful dribbles against Estonia, five in the first half alone, the most of any player on the pitch. Indeed, Wilshere’s mobility and trickery is what makes the 22 year-old stand out from the rest of England’s central midfielders – few home-growns have the skills set, let alone the confidence, to take on defenders through the middle of the pitch.
Yet, that’s not a quality shared by Alonso, Pirlo, Busquets, Schweinsteiger or indeed any of Europe’s top deep-lying clan. Miss-hitting a pass at least allows the security of being in the right position, but getting caught mid-dribble leaves inevitable gaps behind you. San Marino and Estonia failed to take advantage, but the calibre of opposition at Euro 2016 unquestionably will.
Of course, that’s where Delph and Henderson come in, like loyal guard-dogs ready to cover Wilshere’s marauding runs. Their rotation both defensively and offensively added a fluidity that players as creative as Wilshere, or Adam Lallana or Raheem Sterling, tend to thrive under.
Likewise, Wilshere’s clearly been doing his homework, following the Arsenal midfielder’s declaration that he’s studied footage of the deep-lying playmakers he plans to emulate.
But theory and practice can often be oceans apart – just ask communism – and although Wilshere’s understanding of the role has increased with every England outing, it’s not one he can further familiarise himself into at club level. Arsenal’s system is completely different and if anyone’s to provide the Pirlo impersonations, it will be captain Mikel Arteta.
Footballers are highly adaptable in this day and age, but can Hodgson realistically expect to quash Wilshere’s innermost urges? He’s a creative, free-spirited entity, born to run with the ball.
There’s an old fable inside the CIA, a simple one about character and inevitability; as the scorpion and the toad sunk to their certain deaths, drowning at the bottom of a river the toad had kindly accepted the scorpion’s request to carry him across, the toad asked; “Why did you have to stab me in the back with your tail? Now we both shall die. I promised to carry you across the river safely on my back, that was always my intention.” “You don’t understand,” replied the scorpion. “Even at my own peril, I was put on this earth to kill toads.”