It’s under four months until England kick off their Euro 2016 campaign against Russia in Marseille, and the surprising Premier League season has given the national squad a fresh look, with the attacking players outshining their defensive counterparts.
An indication of how times have changed was the collective shrug that greeted Wayne Rooney’s recent injury; in previous years the news would have had the nation holding their collective breath. This is partly down to the waning of Rooney’s influence, but also because of the other options up front.
The leading scorers at the Premier League’s surprise top two are both English strikers who are bang in form, Jamie Vardy of Leicester City and Harry Kane of Tottenham. The supremely talented Daniel Sturridge appears to be finally fit, and Roy Hodgson favourite Danny Welbeck is back in the Arsenal team and on the score sheet after his last gasp winner against Leicester. Theo Walcott and Raheem Sterling provide pace and penetration from out wide, surely a strength to be exploited in France.
Watford manager Qique Sanchez Floris even suggested that Troy Deeney should be called up in Rooney’s absence, and it’s tempting to think Deeney’s chosen an unfortunate year to press his claim. In the past even when there’s been plenty of attacking talent to choose from, players were often injured or out of form heading into a tournament (when Rooney was suspended for the first two games of Euro 2012 England started with Welbeck and Andy Carroll, who had finished the season with 12 goals in 39 games and 9 in 47 respectively).
At the other end of the pitch it’s a different matter. While the strength in depth of goalkeepers is better than it has been for decades with Joe Hart, Jack Butland and Fraser Forster performing brilliantly, the defence looks weak, particularly at centre back. Not so long ago England headed into tournaments with a backline including the likes of John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole (the latter being one of the few genuinely world class players to emerge from these shores in the last 20 years).
Not only are the current crop of centre backs not of the quality of yesteryear, they aren’t having great seasons. Phil Jagielka and John Stones have been in and out of a leaky Everton defence after picking up injuries, while Gary Cahill was dropped by Chelsea before a recent injury to Kurt Zouma. Chris Smalling is having a decent season without being consistently convincing, while his teammate and Hodgson favourite Phil Jones has played only 13 games for Manchester United (largely due to injury), and like most of his teammates hasn’t impressed. Wes Morgan has received plaudits for his performances for the table topping Foxes, but it seems unlikely Hodgson will select him or the impressive Scott Dann of Crystal Palace.
At left back arguably England’s best defender, Luke Shaw, is the victim of a long term injury. Ryan Bertrand is a solid top flight player who won’t let anyone down, while another option, Kieran Gibbs, isn’t playing regularly at Arsenal, and doubts remain about Leighton Baines’ ability at the highest level.
There are options at right back, as recently looked at here here, with Nathaniel Clyne and the in-form Kyle Walker looking the current favourites for a starting spot.
The most impressive English centre back has been Eric Dier, playing in Tottenham’s midfield. Given the relationship he’s struck up Dele Alli they surely have to start in the middle of the park for the national team, another area where England’s makeup will be revolutionised on the back of the emergence of the Premier League’s surprise top two.
With Jack Wilshire perennially injured and Jonjo Shelvey struggling before his Swansea departure (although there are signs that he might recover his form at Newcastle), the Spurs pair surely should be joined in a squad – that will likely include the experience of James Milner, Jordan Henderson and Michael Carrick – by Danny Drinkwater. The Leicester midfielder has been superb, and deserves a chance in the upcoming friendlies against Germany and the Netherlands.
So where does this leave England heading into this summer’s tournament?
If England win their group containing Russia, Wales and Slovakia, which they should, they’ll play a third placed team in the last 16. After that, who knows. Good teams play to their strengths, and while England’s relatively recent semi-success in major tournaments (i.e. quarter finals) has been built on a strong defence, if the current crop are to succeed in France then they need to attack from the off, taking the game to teams and exploiting their natural pace and finishing ability.
Hodgson has shown signs of attacking intent through his 4-3-3 system, including at the disastrous World Cup in Brazil two years ago. However, as England have shown over the years, it’s hard to successfully carry out well made plans on the biggest stage.
A lot can change between now and that date with Russia on 11th June, but even if the backline is looking weak it’s an exciting change to see England’s attacking talents fit and firing heading into a major tournament.