England play Germany in Berlin this evening and I firmly believe that Roy Hodgson has the players to make the world champions very worried, as long as they approach the game with the right system and the right mind-set.
Of course, Germany are an excellent team but England cannot afford to think too much like that going into the game. For too long the national team has been preoccupied with closing down the opposition’s strengths rather than playing to its own. Just remember the desperation to stop Andrea Pirlo or Matteo Darmian at the 2014 World Cup, or Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez at that same tournament. England compromised their own strengths in an attempt to restrict the opposition’s. They lost both games. It is a reactive approach and not the right way to prepare a team, or engage the public, at the top level.
Fortunately, this England squad, unlike many over the last few years, is full of enough pace and attacking talent to allow us to think like that: even without Wayne Rooney and Jack Wilshere, two of the best players in the country when they are fit.
Not since the mid-1990s, when England had Alan Shearer, Teddy Sheringham, Robbie Fowler and Ian Wright have we been blessed with as much quality going forward as I can see in the squad right now. Harry Kane is the top scorer in the Premier League, with 21 goals already. Jamie Vardy is next with 19. Only once since 2000 – in 2009-10 – has more than one Englishman scored at least 20 goals in a Premier League season. We are one Vardy goal away from doing that again.
Hodgson has the raw materials to build a team to get the opposition worried
Throw in the fact that Daniel Sturridge would score 20 league goals if he played a whole season and the good form of Daniel Welbeck since returning, and the team is exceptionally well stocked up front.
Then there is the great issue of pace. The England team has desperately suffered over the last 10 or so years with a lack of pace in the side but this squad is different. Dele Alli, Jordan Henderson, Ross Barkley and Kane are all quick. Vardy, Welbeck and Sturridge are rapid. I would always want a lot of pace in an England team, to force the opposition back because they were scared of getting caught in behind. That, in turn, provides England space to play in. This is an option again now.
What this means is that Hodgson now has the raw materials to build a team that will get top opposition – Germany tonight, Holland on Tuesday, anyone in the Euros – worried about how to stop England’s match-winners.
I know that Hodgson has played a 4-3-3 system, with a lone striker and two wide players. But for me the best approach, to build the right platform for our top players, is a 4-4-2 diamond. That can become a 4-5-1 out of possession, with one of the strikers picking up the opposition’s deepest lying midfielder. Regular readers will know I am a firm advocate of 4-4-2 – as long as it is implemented correctly – but this England squad does not have the natural wingers, which is why I favour this tweaked shape.
Some criticise the 4-4-2 diamond for its lack of width but I don’t think this needs to be a problem tonight. Tottenham Hotspur play a narrow 4-2-3-1 but the width comes from Danny Rose and Kyle Walker, their first-choice full-back pair. England should do the same by selecting those two this evening, with Rose and Walker both pushed far up. We don’t want our full-backs receiving the ball from goalkeeper Jack Butland, we want them high and wide.
Ross Barkley can pull the strings for England if he is allowed the space and freedom to play
The choice at centre-back is difficult because all four in the squad are naturally right-sided, and in a perfect world there would be a balance. But from these players, I would pick Chris Smalling as a shoo-in, as he has been the best English centre-back this season. To partner him I would pick Phil Jagielka, because I believe his club form has been better than that of John Stones or Gary Cahill.
I know Wilshere is Hodgson’s preferred man at the base of midfield, but he is injured so England need to think of alternatives. Eric Dier and Danny Drinkwater have both had excellent seasons for their clubs but I would give Dier the nod. As I have explained on these pages before, Dier dropping in between the centre-backs is absolutely vital to how Spurs play, pushing Rose and Walker up the pitch. England should try to do something similar to provide their width.
Now we come to the two midfielders on either side of the diamond. On the left, I would have another Spurs player, Alli, and on the right, I would just prefer Henderson to his team-mate James Milner. These two players are vitally important. They are not wide players, as the full-backs will be providing the width. What they do have to do is get on the ball and pick passes, and you can see how good Alli is at that with his recent assists for Kane for Spurs. They also have to make “third-man runs”, breaking through the lines, getting beyond the opposition back-four, while not clogging up the space for the man at the tip of the diamond.
In that role – the most important in the system – I would pick Ross Barkley over Adam Lallana. He is an outstanding player who can set the world alight, but what he needs is the right tactical platform. That means runners making space for him by taking opponents away from him and out of his zone. If he has space in attacking areas he can win you games against anyone, whether picking passes or shooting from distance. Watch Everton play and you will see how Romelu Lukaku makes space for Barkley by making runs outside the opposition centre-backs. England must follow that. I would pick Vardy and Kane up front and they can both stretch the opposition with their movement, taking their centre-backs where they do not want to go, outside of the width of the 18-yard box. If they separate the centre-backs, they create space. That would benefit Barkley and allow them to double back into it.
This is a team with four genuine match-winners in it – Alli, Barkley, Vardy and Kane – as well as Sturridge and Welbeck on the bench. It is a team with no Rooney, Wilshere or Raheem Sterling, who are all injured. And it is a team that, if Germany are not worried about in advance, they certainly would be when the game started.Reuse content