Hodgson's centre-back quandary is about more than just defending

ZonalMarking.net's Michael Cox uses FourFourTwo's StatsZone app – now FREE – to assess Hodgson's choices at centre-back...

With John Terry’s international retirement, Rio Ferdinand’s decision to withdraw from the England squad and injuries to Phil Jagielka, Michael Dawson and Gary Cahill, Roy Hodgson is experiencing something of a centre-back crisis this week.The good news, of course, is that England’s first opponents are San Marino, who have lost each of their last 50 international fixtures, scoring just seven goals. England’s centre-backs are unlikely to be tested defensively, barring any first-minute defensive errors, as famously happened 20 years ago.

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The main duty for England’s centre-backs will primarily be about ball retention. They’ll probably spend the majority of the game on the halfway line, and will expect to complete 10 times as many passes as they attempt tackles. This prompted speculation that Hodgson would field Michael Carrick in the centre-back role he’s occasionally played at Manchester United.

In a game where England will dominate possession, it would be similar to Michael Laudrup using passing midfielder Ki Sung-Yeung at centre-back in Swansea’s Carling Cup final victory over Bradford: there was little actual defending needed.

But Hodgson was quick to deny these suggestions, and has indicated that a duo of traditional centre-backs will start the game. “I think we've got four very good [centre-backs] here, so I would be loath to be using Carrick, who has been selected for his prowess as a midfielder,” he said at a pre-match press conference. “It would be enormously harsh on the four centre-backs we have who are all vying for a place in the team.”

Therefore, two of Joleon Lescott, Chris Smalling, Steven Caulker and Steven Taylor will play – and this will be more about their ball retention abilities than their defensive skills.

As the most experienced of the quartet, Lescott will expect to start – despite his lack of playing time at Manchester City this season, having been replaced in Roberto Mancini’s first XI by Matija Nastasic. Of these four players, Lescott boasts the highest pass completion rate at 90.4% – which is partly because he plays long balls rarely, completing just 1.3 long passes per game.

His most recent full Premier League appearance, in the 2-2 draw with Liverpool last month, shows Lescott’s style – he plays left-of-centre and is generally cautious with his distribution, and his passes into the final third are often inaccurate.

Taylor is the next most-reliable passer, with a completion rate of 89.7% – and, playing for Newcastle, he hits accurate long passes twice as often as Lescott. But the interesting thing about Taylor is how flustered he becomes when closed down. Given time and space on the ball, he’s capable of short, neat, sensible passing – but when pressed, his lack of technical ability becomes obvious. Compare his distribution against Southampton (when he was pressed) and Stoke (when he wasn’t) – the difference is clear.

Tottenham’s Steven Caulker may have a marginally less impressive pass completion rate, but he might be the best option against San Marino. The former Swansea loanee has become used to playing a high defensive line under Brendan Rodgers and Andre Villas-Boas, and has the ability to stride forward into midfield, before hitting a decent pass into the attacking players.

As his passing chalkboard in the recent defeat to Fulham demonstrates, he’s reliable on the ball, but also adventurous in popping up in the opposition third.

Finally, there’s Chris Smalling. With an 86.4% completion rate, he has the lowest passing accuracy of these four players – surprising, considering he generally looks extremely composed on the ball.

Smalling’s last start at centre-back was for England against Brazil, and he’s found his opportunities in the centre of defence limited at Manchester United, where he’s recently been used at right-back.

As a right-footer, Smalling is significantly more comfortable on that side of the centre-back pairing. Often forced to fit in around other Manchester United centre-backs, he’s capable of ambitious (if wayward) diagonal balls into midfield when on the right of the duo, but when used to the left, he frequently turns inside and hits simple square balls to his centre-back partner.

As the only player comfortable on the left of a duo, Lescott seems likely to get the nod against San Marino. But Hodgson’s decision about his partner will be interesting – in terms of being comfortable on the ball, Caulker might be his best bet, although Smalling played well against Brazil, and Hodgson is likely to favour consistency over stylistic concerns.

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