Roy Hodgson's bold attacking selection gives England fighting chance
England's traditional style is back in vogue, writes Jim White, so Roy Hodgson should be praised for picking a squad ready to attack with pace.
There is no doubt Danny Drinkwater must be feeling dispirited this morning. It is hard to argue that, on form, the Leicester midfielder does not deserve a place in England’s party for the Euros. He has been excellent all season; calm, resourceful, disciplined, he provided the champions with their engine.
What’s more, he looked a tailor-made fit for an England squad light on central defenders. With only three heading to France (and let’s be honest, hardly a queue of suitable replacements forming behind the trio who are), Eric Dier will be required to move back from midfield if any of them succumb to injury. And in such circumstances, Drinkwater would in turn have been the ideal replacement for the Spurs man, providing resolute midfield cover for a defence which has all the resistant qualities of a rusting colander.
Instead, Roy Hodgson has decided to stick with those he knows best, players who have served him well in the past, even if their fitness is suspect. There is no question that fit and firing, Jack Wilshere, Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge are all worth their place in the squad. Hodgson – like so many England managers before him – is hoping for a wing and a prayer, hoping that all three somehow peak together.
Actually, there is something rather unexpectedly adventurous about his decision to go with all three of them rather than ditch one in favour of Drinkwater. Technically Wilshere and Sturridge are two of the best available to him. He clearly believes they are match winners. In the past, England managers have preferred function over flair. Selection debates in times long gone would have centred on omissions of exciting mavericks like Stan Bowles, Alan Hudson or, way back in the historical times when they actually won something, Jimmy Greaves, who was cruelly cut from the 1966 World Cup final. In a time of reduced national resources, when an England manager is picking from fewer numbers playing in the top division than ever before, it is rather encouraging for those of an attacking disposition that Hodgson has erred on the side of skill rather than efficiency.
Indeed, what this looks like is a squad designed to attack. If England are going to win any games in France, with this lot the likelihood is it will be by 4-3 rather than 1-0. And after the woeful goal droughts of South Africa, Ukraine and Brazil, that would make a pleasant change.
But for all the ridiculous flak Hodgson has taken for his choices – and really it is only Drinkwater who can have caused him more than a moment’s pause - in this sense he has got his squad spot on: he is not going to beat anybody by being defensive so he might as well go for broke.
This is the oddity of the current English system. We used to produce centre-backs by the score. It was not so long ago that an England manager could choose between Sol Campbell, Jamie Carragher, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand. Sure, you could make a case that Scott Dann or Ryan Shawcross should have been chosen, but are they really any improvement on Chris Smalling, Gary Cahill or John Stones? England is now a centre-back-free football culture.
Instead, what we appear to have is a plethora of those who fancy themselves as a No. 10. Wilshere, Wayne Rooney, Dele Alli, Adam Lallana, Ross Barkley, Henderson: not all of them can play where they prefer. Add to them a surfeit of speedy, in-form and firing forwards – Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford are as good a collection of front men as we have been able to call on in years, and that’s without even mentioning Sturridge – and it would be perverse not to forge a game plan around their strengths. Use the No. 10 to get the ball forward quickly and intelligently: that is England’s best hope.
Not least because it keeps the action up the other end of the field, away from the accident waiting to happen that is the back line.
Marcus Rashford celebrates after scoring the first goal for EnglandReuters
The other thing about those forwards (with the obvious exception of Sturridge) is their work rate. Just watching Kane or Vardy in action is an exhausting business. Boy do they put in a shift, harrying, hassling, closing. Add to them Alli, a player born with a snap, and life could be extremely uncomfortable for any Russian, Slovakian and Welsh players who like to dwell on the ball.
In tournaments heading back to Euro 2004, England have been exposed by trying to play to the prevailing fashion. They were simply not good enough technically, or experienced enough at it tactically, to play to the keep-ball methodology that seemed to be the only way to prosper. They ended up aimlessly passing the ball across the defence in a way which would have pleased no-one but Louis van Gaal.
But such is the circular nature of football fashion that if you stand still, eventually you find yourself at the heart of things again. And the high-tempo, high-press, don’t-worry-so-much-about-possession-but-hit-quickly-when-you-do-get-the-ball methodology espoused by the great Marcelo Bielsa and taken up by modern South American managers like Diego Simone and Mauricio Pochettino perfectly suits the English temperament. That is why Pochettino has promoted and developed so many young English players in his time in the Premier League: they suit his way.
Sure, this England team can’t defend. Nor can they play pretty tika-taka. But boy, can they attack at pace. Hodgson has recognised that in his selection. Now all he has to do is put it into practice.