It’s clearly gone past the point of any form of contention anymore – Harry Kane deserves to start for England.
But fitting him into the current England squad is complex on a number of levels. It challenges the factor of selecting Daniel Sturridge, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck who have all been mainstays in recent years. It questions whether their current 4-2-3-1- formation – Roy Hodgson’s preference in recent times – is viable. It challenges whether England’s attacking options are more versatile than anybody really realised.
Currently, Hodgson has persisted in playing a 4-2-3-1-ish shape (there have been minor variations) for much of the last year. Sturridge has been the first choice no. 9, Rooney has nearly always figured as a no.10 (barring his cameo on the left versus Italy) and Danny Welbeck has been pulled out left. Raheem Sterling has played right in the absence of Theo Walcott (that’s another factor that needs to be re-addressed), while Jordan Henderson, Jack Wilshere and James Milner have all featured behind.
It’s amazing how quickly the international scene can change; not a year ago Rickie Lambert and Tom Cleverley had claims for squad places. To think of either of them challenging now would be far-fetched. These are the formation alternatives that Hodgson can turn to if he wants to select Kane.
Pros: Already a proven system that’s been quietly effective in Euro 2016 qualifying so far. Allows two wingers and a three of sorts in midfield, which plays nicely into everybody’s hands – a formation that all are pretty familiar with on a domestic level.
Cons: One of Sturridge or Kane lose out… It’s difficult to actually guess how authentic Kane’s performances are at the moment; has his form in recent weeks been wholly representative of his ability? Without marring the euphoria-optimism-hysteria with a tinge of realism, you’d probably still say Sturridge is the better of the two. Either way, you don’t want to omit either of them (despite Sturridge’s slower international form), so alternative formations would be best sought to accommodate both.
Pros: Allows you to play Sturridge and Kane together up front and Rooney as a 10 behind, which basically gets them all in a coherent formation. Or, alternatively, you put Sterling as a no.10 (where he was excellent against Italy) and push Rooney deeper into midfield. Either variation accommodates all of them.
Cons: If Sterling does play as a 10, Rooney’s pushed further away from goal into a position he’s not hugely proven in. Width is sacrificed outright, which basically means no Adam Lallana, Walcott, Stewart Downing (he did actually play in England’s last qualifier) or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Also places a greater reliance on England’s full backs to bomb forward into vacant space, which seems kind of silly when you’ve got so many other attacking options waiting to be utilised.
Pro’s: Two strikers AND width, meaning the losers this time are in midfield where you only have a two. That would probably mean playing Rooney really deep and partnering him with someone like Wilshere if you wanted Kane and Sturridge to play up front. Kane’s also shown himself to be especially complete at coming deep to get the ball, meaning you could partner him with another no.9 to some effect.
Cons: Numerous. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt with 4-4-2s and England. Sven’s was wasteful, Fabio’s was farcical. It’s outdated and archaic. It means there’s a degree of midfield vulnerability against big teams where the possession battle will almost certainly be lost. Also calls on wide players to retain some form of defensive responsibility, which doesn’t really suit Lallana, Ox, Walcott and the like, who function better in the final third, away from the burden of avid defensive responsibilities.
Pro’s: The beauty of playing three at the back in any level is it allows you to play three players in midfield and two strikers up front. That would again accommodate all of England’s best attacking players. Louis Van Gaal’s and Brendan Rodgers’ preference towards the system show it holds viability with this band of players.
Con’s: Not a negative as such, more that Hodgson has categorically stated on a number of occasions how he much prefers playing four in defence, not three. (See this in depth coaching video, where Hodgson vindicates his categoric preference for a back four). However, the contents of that video are pretty old, and the presence of the forward thinking, progressive Gary Neville on the coaching staff could sway him.
And the verdict…
In all, Kane’s noisy form causes a whole load of selection headaches for England’s management. Play two up front with some width and you expose yourself in midfield. Play two up front and three in midfield and sacrifice width and a whole category of players. Play with three in midfield and two wide and you’ve got a direct Kane versus Sturridge dilemma.
England’s next big match is not until March 27 against Lithuania so plenty can still happen between now and then, especially regarding injuries. Still, if you take the view of BBC pundit Danny Murphy, that Hodgson should build his England team around Kane, then some big tactical decisions will need to be made.
It’s a good dilemma to have after all. Good luck, Roy.