Meet England's fringe players offering Roy Hodgson a 2016 selection headache
Given England’s qualification for the 2016 European Championship has already been secured, it's inevitable that Roy Hodgson’s thoughts will focus on who to select in his final squad of 23 for France next summer.
England's line-up may not have changed significantly since the 2014 World Cup in Brazil but, with the transfer window and other circumstances kind to peripheral English players, there are promising opportunities for many who Hodgson previously wouldn’t have relied upon...
With Manchester City looking so strong, there is little question that, barring injury or a near-unprecedented loss of form, Joe Hart will remain England’s first-choice goalkeeper. There are question marks, however, surrounding the other two candidates likely to deputise.
West Brom's Ben Foster and Southampton shot-stopper Fraser Forster were previously established and underrated but have suffered serious injuries, and thus recovering both fitness and form in time for their selections not to prove a gamble may be beyond at least one of them, if not both.
In their absence, former England Under-21 captain Jack Butland has excelled at Stoke and is already clearly a competent international second choice. Norwich’s John Ruddy and the promising Alex McCarthy, playing regular Premier League football again with Crystal Palace, can compete for the potential third squad place.
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Central defence has been England’s biggest weakness since John Terry retired from international duty. John Stones and Chris Smalling are progressing impressively as potential partners to Gary Cahill, however, and a maturing Micah Richards – playing regularly again at Aston Villa – might just impress Hodgson enough for him to forgive the ex-Manchester City man’s decision to reject being on standby for Euro 2012. Calum Chambers is, after all, unlikely to play week in, week out for Arsenal before the season’s end. The talented Steven Caulker, similarly, could thrive at Southampton where so many others have improved in recent seasons.
Leighton Baines’ position had already looked under threat before injury, and fellow left-backs Luke Shaw, Kieran Gibbs and Ryan Bertrand are all capable of permanently replacing him.
At right-back, the largely unproven – internationally, at least – Nathaniel Clyne appears to lack Hodgson’s full confidence, but although Glen Johnson and Carl Jenkinson are playing regularly at Stoke and West Ham respectively, the Liverpool man should keep his place barring a disaster. His Reds team-mate Joe Gomez, owing to his early-season form and ability to play across the back four – potentially vital when Hodgson can only select 23 players – has an excellent and unique chance to become a regular international, too.
Hodgson’s midfield, largely as a consequence of Steven Gerrard’s international retirement, has changed more than any other unit of his team since the World Cup. Fabian Delph, Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson have been selected more often than any others but, with Delph likely to be handed limited first-team football after joining Manchester City and Wilshere’s injury problems ongoing, only Henderson appears certain to retain his place. Michael Carrick’s obvious influence in recent England appearances will no doubt tempt Hodgson, in the same way that Jonjo Shelvey’s Swansea form already has.
Ross Barkley has excelled for Everton and, with his creativity, ability to run with the ball and the likely difficulty involved in accommodating him in a three-man midfield alongside Wilshere, could benefit more than any other from the latter’s problematic ankle and become a long-term option.
Tom Cleverley’s confidence is returning at Everton and his subtlety and versatility provide an option few others can offer; James Milner is similarly versatile but more comfortable playing box-to-box. James Ward-Prowse, recently named the England U21 captain, has as much potential as Barkley and is another candidate capable of becoming a regular in the senior squad this coming season.
It is defensive midfielders Hodgson is most short of, where, beyond Carrick, he has few natural options. Euro 2016 will come too soon for Reece Oxford – whose progress is likely to be stalled by West Ham’s recruitment of Alex Song – and Chelsea’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek is unlikely to play regularly. Tottenham’s interesting selection of Eric Dier in front of the back four – with his ability to cover in central defence should a team-mate be caught out of position – might just prove one of the solutions the manager requires.
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Rarely has an England manager had such variety among his attacking players – a reflection, perhaps, of the demands of the modern game. Injuries to Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck, players Hodgson previously highly valued, have already forced him into using alternatives. Should neither prove suitable options come the summer, the manager must first decide how he wishes to use Wayne Rooney. The captain has previously played as a No.10, a wide forward – more likely options when Sturridge or Welbeck can be used – and, most recently, as a central striker. Raheem Sterling will almost certainly be used as one of two wide forwards, meaning the potential third position alongside Rooney will be competed for among Jay Rodriguez, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott and Harry Kane.
Kane’s involvement would, of course, require Rooney to return wide; should Hodgson wish for his captain to remain central as expected, Rodriguez and Walcott – a direct selection between the two could be decided upon Sterling’s preference for starting on the left or right – are proven finishers when cutting in from the wings, while Oxlade-Chamberlain’s energy and power make him a significant alternative.
Despite his improvement, it is difficult to see Jamie Vardy remaining a serious contender if Rodriguez can rediscover his form once he has his hit full fitness. Charlie Austin is unquestionably capable, but that he remains uncapped and is again playing Championship football suggests his chances of selection are bleak.
Adam Lallana is another versatile, fluid, and more likely option for Hodgson, although his form and confidence need to return. In the event of playing regular first-team football and to their maximum abilities, both Andros Townsend and Saido Berahino – each capable of playing in at least two of the positions across a front three – can also compete for selection but, for now, neither appear to be at the right clubs.