It’s the same every year. The Premier League is down to its last ten games. Anything can happen. The deep breath before the plunge. The calm before the storm. Squeaky bum time. We all take in the moment- and then realise there’s an international break. Here we go again.
So, we pool together our nationwide reserves of excitement and we eagerly await Roy Hodgson’s decisions of the 23 best players in the country to represent us. And though one of those players is Danny Rose, we may just see an excellent England performance.
So, England will be playing Lithuania at good ol’ new Wembley on Friday night. What can we expect? Well, with Daniel Sturridge returning to Liverpool with a hip complaint, and with Harry Kane in sensational form, I expect Danny Welbeck to start. That’s just the ‘Hodgson Way.’ The defence will be the usual suspects, with the usual suspect defending. England will win by two or three, look completely staggered by how they did it, and the papers will wax lyrical on how easy England are making their exceptionally easy Euro 2016 group look. I don’t know much about the Lithuanian team, but they’re the pretty standard ‘let a goal in off Gary Cahill’s knee’ fare.
But it’s the game on Monday, against Italy, which should get the attention. In Brazil, England were at the very least Italy’s equals. From that brief, shining, glorious moment when we all thought Raheem Sterling had scored, England were clam, composed, powerful, and let in two very easy goals. Leighton Baines was exposed at the highest level of the game with embarrassing ease. Glen Johnson only occupies that right back slot because someone has to.
Raheem Sterling will miss this game with a dubious ‘toe injury,’ therefore Hodgson’s will probably have to switch things around a bit. By naming Michael Carrick in the squad, it leads me to believe he will start both games. Carrick is an excellent player with a wealth of experience, but he’s a playmaker rather than a tackler, therefore I think both he and Henderson will play as holding midfielders, with (sigh) Fabian Delph slightly ahead.
Hopefully, he plays Rooney and Kane as two strikers, with Kane slightly further forward. Rooney is looking much more the player of old this season, particularly against Spurs. Kane has a knack, much like Shearer, of being in the right place at the right time, and is in a purple patch where everything is coming off for him, in contrast to Sturridge, who is much more likely to run on to a through ball or come up with a moment of magic.
For this is the England that we need to analyse. In Brazil, England were not as bad as their one point total suggests, but this isn’t enough. For all the support and the ability of our team, England haven’t made it to a semi-final in any competition since 1994, when they held the Euros. When Roy Hodgson was first named manager, I believed that even if we weren’t taking a great leap forward with him, at least we weren’t moving backwards. Hodgson, if nothing else, is a realist. His awkward press conferences and old-fashioned approach makes him seem as if he’s been left behind somewhat, but he’s a very well repsected manager with an excellent track record, especially abroad. However, the main problem with England is being overly cautious.
Against San Marino Hodgson elected to play a holding midfielder. Why? No player would get experience playing in that position, as it’s the equivalent of a Sunday league side. England should be going in to attack every game. Our strengths change every few years. In 2006, our defence and midfield were the envy of nations. Now, we should be focussing more on our young wide players. We attempt to play to some style or standard which is at best outdated and at worst suits absolutely nobody. In midfield, only Jordan Henderson can really be said to have impressed over the last 12 months, though his (Brendan Rodgers inspired) petulant attempt to take the captain’s armband from the departing Rooney in the last England game shows his naivety.
I think England can walk away with a win from Italy on Monday. Looking at that team, it’s only Pirlo who really stands out. Mario Balotelli, if he plays, seems to have lost a bit of his natural arrogance but is more apt to lose his temper. The rest of Italy’s team is in transition, and they haven’t really got an attacking focal point. On the other hand, this is England. At 5-0 up to San Marino, there seemed to be a feeling in the air that we could still lose. Our consistent inconsistency means you never know what England team is going to turn up. For all our sakes, let’s hope it’s a good one.