England’s Euro 2016 preparations will begin in earnest when Roy Hodgson’s players face world champions Germany in Berlin on Saturday.
Having coasted through qualification with a 100 per cent winning record, England now have five friendly fixtures to fine tune the make-up of Hodgson’s 23-man squad before the Group B opener against Russia on 11 June. But Hodgson still has issues to address. Saturday will be when the work begins for real.
Goalkeepers: Best competition for 20 years
The loss of Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart, due to a calf injury, for the friendlies against Germany and the Netherlands ensures England will be without their undisputed first choice for two key preparation fixtures.
But while the form of the 28-year-old has been a rare positive in a disappointing season for City, Hart’s absence this week will hand Jack Butland the opportunity to underline his emergence as a genuine contender for the No 1 jersey.
Hodgson would undoubtedly prefer to have Hart’s experience in goal against the Germans, particularly with concerns over the form of his central defenders, but Butland’s performances for Stoke City this season merit his elevation into the firing line in Berlin.
The 23-year-old Butland has won just three senior caps, with his first start coming as far back as the friendly victory over Italy in Bern in August 2012, so Hart’s injury may actually prove to be perfect timing in terms of accelerating Butland’s exposure to a serious test ahead of the tournament in France.
Barring further setbacks, Hart will rightly claim his place as first choice in France, but England will travel to the tournament with their goalkeeping department as healthy as it has been for perhaps 20 years, when David Seaman and Tim Flowers – a title winner with Blackburn Rovers – were one and two at Euro 96.
Hodgson not only has Hart and Butland to call on, but also Southampton’s Fraser Forster, who has been in fine form for his club since returning from a serious knee injury in January.
Burnley’s Tom Heaton, who has been drafted into the squad in place of Hart this week, is unlikely to make the final squad for France, but a successful season in the Championship at Turf Moor at least ensures he would travel to the tournament in good form should he be required.
Defence: Worrying lack of international class
If England are to enjoy a successful tournament in France, Hodgson and his coaches must find a formula to eradicate the defensive concerns which threaten to compromise any ambitions of a run to the semi-finals or beyond.
The double leg fracture suffered by Manchester United’s Luke Shaw last September has created a genuine problem at left-back, despite the rather optimistic suggestions that the 20-year-old may yet return to action in time to sneak into Hodgson’s squad.
Without Shaw, Hodgson will face Germany and the Netherlands with Southampton’s Ryan Bertrand and Tottenham’s uncapped Danny Rose as options on the left side of defence. Everton’s Leighton Baines, who struggled at the World Cup, has not been selected.
Inexperience and a lack of top-level quality is the issue at left-back, but it is a similar problem at right-back and centre-half.
In the middle, Chris Smalling’s outstanding season with United should ensure that he is the first-choice centre-half, but alongside him, Hodgson must go with either Gary Cahill, who has been in abject form at Chelsea this season, or John Stones, a player who could become a star of the tournament, despite being dropped in recent weeks by Everton manager Roberto Martinez.
Hodgson has been loyal to Cahill in the past, even handing him the captain’s armband in the absence of Wayne Rooney, but his performances this season should be a worry.
Yet is Hodgson bold enough to trust Stones alongside Smalling, knowing that his readiness to take risks on the ball could return to haunt him against quality opponents?
The alternatives? Phil Jagielka was exposed too often at the World Cup, while Phil Jones cannot remain fit enough to mount a challenge. Scott Dann at Crystal Palace has been overlooked for too long to have any hope of travelling to France.
Right-back is another problem. Neither Kyle Walker nor Nathaniel Clyne are international-class full-backs, but unless Hodgson chooses to play Stones at right-back, they are his only credible options.
Midfield: Impressive blend of youth and experience
This is an area where England are beginning to look increasingly healthy, with Hodgson benefiting from a blend of youthful promise and time-served experience.
In reality, the 2018 World Cup in Russia is perhaps when the likes of Dele Alli, Ross Barkley and Eric Dier will be at their pomp, with Jack Wilshere another player whose best years are ahead of him, but the first three of the above have all shown this season that if you are good enough, you are old enough.
Wilshere is running out of time to overcome his shin injury in order to make the squad, but Hodgson has made it clear that he will hand the Arsenal midfielder every opportunity to do so.
Yet even if Wilshere falls short, Hodgson has good options, with Leicester City’s Danny Drinkwater being rewarded for his impressive season for the Premier League leaders with his first call-up this week.
Drinkwater earned the nod ahead of West Ham’s Mark Noble, another player who may yet be considered, and the defensive midfielder will be given the chance to stake his claim over the two warm-up games.
So Hodgson has Dier and Drinkwater as options in the defensive midfield role, with the 34-year-old Michael Carrick still in the frame despite missing out on this squad.
Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson and James Milner offer the experience and versatility to play the holding role and positions further forward.
Adam Lallana’s return to form under Jürgen Klopp is a bonus for Hodgson, while Raheem Sterling will travel to France despite his hot-and-cold campaign with Manchester City.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s fitness following a knee injury will be a worry for Hodgson, but the Arsenal midfielder is another who will be given time to make the squad.
Fabian Delph could also make the travelling party if he returns to the team at City.
Attack: Rooney no longer top striker with Kane about
Once again, England will travel to a major tournament with a question mark hanging over the form and fitness of Wayne Rooney.
But unlike the ultimately disappointing World Cups of 2006, 2010 and 2014, as well as the run to the quarter-finals of Euro 2012, England will head to France with exciting alternatives to the Manchester United forward.
Rooney may be England captain – and he broke Sir Bobby Charlton’s goalscoring record earlier this season – but the 30-year-old is no longer guaranteed a starting position in Hodgson’s team due to a combination of his own decline and the development of Harry Kane.
Kane’s form for Tottenham over the past 18 months has now elevated the 22-year-old above Rooney as England’s first choice centre-forward and it would be folly if Hodgson were to choose his captain ahead of the most in-form striker in the country.
There is an argument which suggests that Kane’s three goals in his eight England appearances so far have come against Lithuania, San Marino and Switzerland and therefore he lacks Rooney’s track record of scoring against the very best.
But Kane is the coming force and Hodgson’s major dilemma is whether to play him at the expense of Rooney or attempt to find a way to pair them together.
He is running out of time to test the second option out, however, so the next two games may prove decisive for Rooney if Kane hits it off with Leicester’s Jamie Vardy or Daniel Sturridge of Liverpool.
The pace of Vardy and Sturridge is something that Rooney cannot offer and that may also count against him if Hodgson decides to go with Kane and one other forward.
Danny Welbeck’s return to fitness, and form, with Arsenal is another positive for Hodgson, who likes the 25-year-old’s ability to play through the centre or on the left.
Wildcards: Rashford could spring a surprise
It is rare for a major tournament to take place without at least one player emerging from relative obscurity to make a late surge into England’s 23-man squad.
Historians will recall Geoff Hurst making his England debut in February 1966, less than six months before scoring a hat-trick in the World Cup final, and Michael Owen also breaking on to the international scene in February 1998 ahead of scoring his wonder goal against Argentina at the World Cup that year.
Former Liverpool defender Martin Kelly was selected by Hodgson for his Euro 2012 squad just two weeks after making his England debut, so the current manager has form for making late gambles with his squad.
And there are several candidates who could yet prompt Hodgson into taking a chance on a wildcard. Jon Flanagan travelled to the United States as part of England’s pre-World Cup preparations two years ago before missing out on a place in the 23-man squad, but while injuries have seen him sidelined for almost 18 months, he is now back in action for Liverpool and a potential solution at right-back.
In midfield, Jesse Lingard’s performances for Manchester United since breaking into Louis van Gaal’s team last October have been noted by Hodgson, who considered him for a place in this week’s squad. However, having been moved into a No 10 role by Van Gaal recently after playing wide right, Lingard’s versatility could yet sway Hodgson.
Meanwhile, the sudden emergence of Marcus Rashford at Old Trafford has given Hodgson a real opportunity to name a surprise package in his squad. Still raw and with plenty to learn, Rashford’s pace and goalscoring instinct would give England the X-factor, but would it be a gamble too far and as ill-advised as Sven Goran Eriksson’s selection of a 17-year-old Theo Walcott at Germany 2006?
If Hodgson wants to shake up his attacking options, West Ham’s Andy Carroll may be a more suitable option – if he can stay fit.
Ogden’s squad for Euro 2016
Joe Hart, Jack Butland, Fraser Forster
Nathaniel Clyne, Kyle Walker, Chris Smalling, John Stones, Gary Cahill, Ryan Bertrand, Leighton Baines
Dele Alli, Ross Barkley, Eric Dier, Michael Carrick, Danny Drinkwater, James Milner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Raheem Sterling
Harry Kane, Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge, Jamie Vardy, Danny Welbeck
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