There are just four months to go before England’s opening Euro 2016 fixture, a meeting with Russia in Marseille. Usually, you’d expect Roy Hodgson to be relatively confident of his starting XI by now, especially after England’s impressive 100% record in qualification. In reality, however, there are various question marks about his side – particularly in the final third.
The uncertainty has various causes – some negative, some positive. First, the two men who were competing for England’s central striking role at the start of qualifying, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck, have both endured an injury-hit year. Sturridge has managed just two Premier League goals this season, while Welbeck hasn’t played a single minute for Arsenal.
These would previously have been considered surefire squad members, but Hodgson can’t afford to take any risks, and it remains to be seen whether either can prove their fitness before the end of the campaign.
On a brighter note, however, two other forwards have emerged from nowhere since World Cup 2014. When Hodgson named his squad for Brazil, Kane had managed three career goals in the Premier League, while Jamie Vardy hadn’t even made his top-level debut.
Now, Vardy is the Premier League’s top goalscorer for Leicester and Kane is just three behind, having hit 21 goals last season. These two must now be considered odds-on to make the squad – and Hodgson will be considering using both in his starting XI too.
Before we consider that, though, it’s worth remembering the type of system Hodgson is likely to use. In qualification he started off using a midfield diamond, before later turning to a 4-3-3. Either way, it seems he’ll use one defensive midfielder with two others just ahead, which leaves three slots for attacking players. The format remains to be seen, but Hodgson is probably quite flexible in this respect – if 4-3-1-2 makes sense with the in-form players he’ll play that way, but if he has two flying wingers on song, it’ll be 4-3-3.
Hodgson is a loyal manager, however, and regardless of what happens between now and the end of the season, it’s impossible to imagine captain Wayne Rooney not starting. It’s now a decade since the Manchester United striker truly performed at a major tournament, but Hodgson continues to have faith. Raheem Sterling, too, is very likely to start. That means only one forward slot is up for grabs – and it’s probably a shootout between Kane and Vardy.
Chalk and cheese
The two form strikers, however, are entirely different beasts. Vardy has thrived in a team still considered underdogs, and is accustomed to playing on the counter-attack – generally collecting long, diagonal balls into the channels, on the run against the opposition defence. Instinctively, Hodgson likes this type of player – he’s not a manager who wants possession football, and instead wants to focus on direct attacking, hitting the defence while they’re disorganised. In that sense, Vardy could be his perfect man.
There’s a problem, however. England probably won’t be able to play counter-attacking football in the group phase: Russia and Slovakia are both defensive-minded teams who will look to play on the break themselves, while Wales will invite England to make the running before attacking sporadically.
Vardy has clearly evolved his game and become more of an all-round forward, but if England are spending long periods with possession and need someone more comfortable against packed defences, Kane would be a better bet.
The Tottenham man has also improved significantly this season. His early-season goal drought arguably forced him to develop his all-round game: rather than playing as a pure penalty-box poacher, he varied his position more to come deep, collect balls to feet and link with onrushing midfielders. That’s more the type of thing England will need against defences sitting back – in conjunction, of course, with Kane’s poaching form that has thankfully returned.
June 11: England vs Russia
June 16: England vs Wales
June 20: Slovakia vs England
The use of Kane would surely mean England playing with a diamond, probably with Manchester City's Sterling in a central role behind him and Rooney. There’s a possibility Sterling and Rooney could support Kane from wide, but Hodgson might be wary of using Rooney on the flank – a role he dislikes, and hasn’t played regularly for some time.
The use of Vardy, however, could make 4-3-3 possible. Although clearly a central striker, Vardy has played out wide before at club level, and started on the left of a three-man attack in England’s 3-0 win over Lithuania in the final qualification game, with Kane up front and both Rooney and Sterling rested. There could be some fluidity between Sterling, Rooney and Vardy, with all spending some time towards the flanks.
Of course, if you want a player capable of playing either wide or up front, both Welbeck and Sturridge could be very useful. And it’s also worth considering Theo Walcott too, who has shown ability for Arsenal this season in a centre-forward role and from the left flank, as well as his traditional right-sided role. Walcott has been in poor form recently, but there’s every chance of him playing his way into contention.
Mobility and flexibility will probably be key for England in attacking positions, and Walcott offers both.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the fact England might be better off without Rooney in the side at all. An ultra-pacy front trio of Sterling, Walcott and Vardy, for example, would be particularly exciting. This remains distinctly unlikely, however, and yet again, England’s issue is whether Rooney is helping the side or hindering it.
Get the best features, fun and footballing frolics straight to your inbox every week.
Thank you for signing up to Four Four Two. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.