In the aftermath of England’s friendly win over Germany in March, viewed by many as the indication to the potential of this current team, manager Roy Hodgson was admitting he now has the most exciting side of his four years in charge.
If that performance in Berlin was a seminal moment, then so too was Hodgson’s comments as the dust was settling in the Olympiastadion. The “epithet that will stay with me for the rest of my life”, he said, “is that I am conservative in some way”. “It’s not true and I have never felt that way”.
His final squad announcement for Euro 2016 on Tuesday afternoon was a two-fingered salute to the suggestions of conservatism but one has to think that Hodgson is experienced and wily enough to avoid doing it purposely in order to make a point.
Caution has certainly been thrown to the wind with a squad that includes both Marcus Rashford and Daniel Sturridge among a group of 5 strikers and in which only 8 of the 20 outfield players can be classified as defensive-minded.
Gary Cahill, Chris Smalling and John Stones are the 3 centre-halves, a position that seems light given the folly of relying on Eric Dier for cover was exposed by the Tottenham man’s uncertain 17 minutes besides Stones in last Friday’s friendly win over Australia.
Dier has played at centre-half only once over the past season for his club and the way he stooped low whilst unmarked to head past his own keeper to gift Australia a late goal would generate hope that he can remain in his more familiar position of holding midfielder.
With Nathaniel Clyne and Kyle Walker on one side and Ryan Bertrand competing with Danny Rose on the other, England are well-stocked for full-backs, but there is alarm at how much both Turkey and Australia troubled England’s back-line in the 2 warm-up friendlies.
Hodgson will have to work hard at drilling in a greater understanding between Stones and Smalling, likely to be England’s centre-half pairing against Russia in a fortnight’s time, given the lack of a genuine, vocal leader at the back.
The decision to slim down on defenders and bulk-up on attackers is in part motivated by Hodgson’s experiences of Euro 2012 when he led England to Poland and Ukraine with Wayne Rooney, suspended for the first two matches, Jermain Defoe, who had not started an international match for the previous 20 months, Andy Carroll and Danny Welbeck as his four strikers.
Carroll and Welbeck went into the tournament with two England goals between them and bar a late flurry against Sweden in the group stage, instigated by Theo Walcott, England’s role in the tournament is memorable for turgid, fragmented displays against France and Ukraine leading up to the eventual quarter-final exit to Italy on penalties in which England mustered only 8 shots to Italy’s 31.
In contrast, England head into this summer’s tournament packing a potent punch with all of their strikers, possibly apart from record goal-scorer Rooney who duly reminded everybody of his finishing skills with an emphatically-taken strike against Australia, in blistering form. Jamie Vardy and Harry Kane both scored in the victory over Turkey and have just finished a campaign where they have shared 48 goals between them.
The trajectory of Marcus Rashford since he made an unexpected debut for Manchester United in February has been remarkable and the way he took his debut goal in Sunderland last Friday meant Daniel Sturridge, not so much watching from the bench but playing with his phone, was the surprise inclusion rather than the 18-year old.
Hodgson has always been an enthusiastic admirer of the 26 year old’s finishing skills and 8 goals for Liverpool since March has been enough for the manager to keep faith with Sturridge amidst all his injury struggles.
Those problems meant Sturridge did not feature at all in the qualifying campaign and has only 58 minutes in an England shirt, in the friendly with the Netherlands in March, since a friendly with Norway in September 2014.
Yet his familiarity to Hodgson from playing in the last World Cup counts for him, while Jack Wilshere and Raheem Sterling have also benefitted from featuring regularly in Hodgson’s recent squads as they fought off competition from Danny Drinkwater and Andros Townsend to secure their place in the final 23.
The case for Drinkwater is a strong one given his displays for Leicester this season helped them win the title, yet Wilshere has more to offer in his game and featured regularly in qualifying. So too did Sterling, though Townsend can count himself unfortunate not to be included as England seem short of the match-changing pace and directness he can terrorise tiring defences with.
The Newcastle winger would be a safer bet to make an impact than Ross Barkley who keeps his place despite an underwhelming season with Everton in which he appears to have lost confidence and regressed from the highly-regarded play-maker he started the campaign as. Against Australia Barkley’s late cameo was strewn with clumsy touches and misplaced passes and it is difficult to pinpoint the role Hodgson is taking him to France to fill.
Liverpool’s trio of Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Adam Lallana make up the midfield line-up together with Dele Alli, who is likely to be competing with Rooney for the positon behind the strikers at the tip of a diamond. Lallana offers good competition to Sterling for a place on the left if Hodgson opts for a 4-3-3 and leaves Alli to replicate his promising club partnership with Dier beside a hard-working Henderson or Milner, or even the ball-carrying ability of Wilshere.
With Rashford and Sturridge both able to play wide as well as centrally, with Sterling also comfortable in a variety of positions, there is many different combinations available to Hodgson in forward areas and many of them are likely to be looked at in Thursday’s last warm-up friendly against Portugal at Wembley.
Hodgson however, in a problem made of his own choosing, doesn’t have the same number of options available at the back and that threatens to bite when the tournament starts. The 68 year old has gone some way to shedding his skin as a risk-averse conservative but he may soon find himself ruing his step away from the norm.