Not since the late 1990s, when Robbie Fowler, Alan Shearer, Michael Owen, Andy Cole, Les Ferdinand, Teddy Sheringham and Kevin Phillips were all vying for a Three Lions jersey, has an England manager enjoyed such depth and diversity up front.
Just six years ago, England’s striking options were so bleak that even Jay Bothroyd, a striker who scored six goals from four seasons in the Premier League, and Bolton’s notoriously goal-shy target man Kevin Davies were issued run-outs due to a lack of superior alternatives.
But with just four months to go until the European Championship in France, England’s frontmen are firing on all cylinders. Should his form continue, Jamie Vardy will become the Premier League’s first English top scorer since the 1999/2000 season. Likewise, five English strikers have contributed to ten league goals or more (either striking or setting-up) this term, whilst the likes of Charlie Austin, Daniel Sturridge, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck will also be in contention when Hodgson drafts his 23-man squad.
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All in all, I make that ten strikers in with a shout of a place at Euro 2016, obviously to varying degrees, and one could even add Andy Carroll as an outside contender purely due to the temptation of having a long-ball-based plan Z.
It seems that three places are already nailed on; captain Wayne Rooney is guaranteed some role in the starting line-up whether it’s at centre-forward or somewhere else, Harry Kane has scored the most league goals of any English striker since becoming a Spurs regular last season and Jamie Vardy’s fairytale rise from non-league football will only feel truly completed with a few outings at the summer tournament.
But that leaves potentially two places up for grabs – perhaps more if Rooney, Kane or Vardy are unfortunately stricken with injury before the end of the season – and despite making the solitary appearance so far this term, I’m tipping one to be filled by Arsenal’s Danny Welbeck.
Admittedly, the 25-year-old has some catching up to do after spending nine months sidelined through injury. A host of names have leapt above him in the pecking order during the interim and Welbeck’s first campaign at the Emirates was decent if unspectacular – proving himself an expedient member of the squad but failing to forge an undisputed role in the starting Xi. In total, that’s around 20 months from his move to Manchester United in which, based on domestic football at least, selection rivals have gained ground.
But the 33-cap international has always been a big-game player, something he reminded everybody of on Sunday when returning from the bench to net a later winner past league leaders Leicester City, and England need as many as possible if they’re to progress in a tournament that immediately becomes knockout football after game one.
Indeed, Welbeck’s versatility and tactical adaptability often goes unappreciated but it has played a crucial role in major fixtures at both domestic and international level throughout the years. In a Champions League tie with Real Madrid during Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season at United, for example, he scored from a corner in the first leg and marked playmaker Xabi Alonso completely out of the game in the second, until Nani’s 54th-minute sending off instigated an inevitable implosion.
Likewise, the forward netted a late winner against Sweden to help secure England’s place in the knockout stages of the last Euros and put two past Switzerland at the start of qualifying in September 2014. The 2-0 win essentially guaranteed the Three Lions pole position in Group E and consequentially, top seeding at the coming tournament. An integral contribution.
He actually finished the qualifying campaign as England’s second-top scorer behind Rooney and was just one of just 16 players to net six times or more from all 45 teams involved. That leaves Welbeck’s England tally at 14 in 33, a superior strike-rate to Kane, Sturridge, Walcott and Vardy’s and only 5% behind Rooney’s. In that sense and also in terms of experience, boasting more goals and twice as many caps as any of the aforementioned in this article (apart from the positionally ambiguous Walcott), Welbeck is England’s most established striker after their centurion skipper.
Hodgson sticks with players he can trust – James Milner is a classic example – and Welbeck firmly falls into that category as well. He’s proved a pivotal influence in some of the 68-year-old’s most important games as Three Lions boss and in terms of industriousness, energy and goals has always been consistent. Likewise, during a tournament in which Hodgson has already suggested he will use multiple systems against very different qualities of opponent to maximise the enormous variety at his disposal, Welbeck’s versatility will be an enormous advantage.
But as I stressed earlier in this article, Welbeck still has some catching up do to prove he remains relevant to the England cause. There will be a natural concern – both on Hodgson and Arsene Wenger’s part – about bringing a player to an international tournament who has been absent for such an extended period. A summer’s rest would surely be of greater benefit in the long-run and it almost creates an excuse for Hodgson to leave the versatile forward at home.
So in the final months of the season Welbeck must prove he’s a risk worth taking, but with Olivier Giroud’s early-season form drying up in recent weeks, there is the chance to become an integral character in the ending chapters of Arsenal’s title bid. That could be what guarantees him a place on the plane to France next summer.