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England: The post Golden generation era

For years, England supporters have called for the end of the ‘golden generation’, the group of players who failed to live up to expectations at international level. It’s finally happened: Ashley Cole’s retirement was announced shortly before the World Cup, while Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard have followed since.

Consequently, we now have England squad that looks younger, fresher – but lacking in outright quality. While Cole’s departure isn’t a significant blow – after all, he retired having been left out of the World Cup squad – the absences of Lampard and Gerrard are more concerning. For Gerrard it was the right time to concentrate on his club form, and by Euro 2016 others might be better players. For now, however, the absence of the Liverpool skipper means England are without a genuine first-team player.

Looking at the XI for tonight’s friendly against Norway, the central midfield zone is the biggest worry. Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson are both very capable midfielders, but it remains to be seen how they’ll cope together in a midfield duo, considering shuttling forward is a crucial part of their game. Granted, they do this in different ways – Wilshere likes receiving the ball on the half-turn and storming into attack, while Henderson is about off-the-ball runs in behind the opposition defence. Both have played more disciplined roles on occasion, but they don’t excel in withdrawn positions. There’s a worry this will become another Gerrard-and-Lampard situation, where England will get the best from neither.

The rest of the side looks promising, however. Upfront, Daniel Sturridge’s club form is fantastic and he’’s become more effective for England too, while for all the complaints about Wayne Rooney’s World Cup performances, he was actually one of Roy Hodgson’s better performers in Brazil, managing a goal and an assist in England’s first two games. There remains a concern about his tactical discipline against strong sides, which is why he was shoved to the left against Italy, but this won’t be a problem in England’s Euro 2016 qualifying group.

Out wide there’s also reason to be positive, with Raheem Sterling the most on-form English player based upon 2014 performances, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain afforded an opportunity after missing the World Cup through injury. Oxlade-Chamberlain is the least established of England’s attacking quartet but is arguably the player who most suits Hodgson’s side – he defends reliably before powering directly towards goal from a wide starting position, and has continually been given chances to impress under this regime. He’s highly likely to be a key player at Euro 2016, and it’s worth considering that he’s played in central midfield on occasion for Arsenal – this could be a future option for England, even if he’s yet another energetic runner, rather than an authoritative passer.

The backline sees John Stones and Phil Jones given a chance, presumably with Stones at right-back. However, they might be competing for the same centre-back place in the long run – Jones has been Manchester United’s most impressive defender under Louis van Gaal so far, while Stones could be handed opportunities at centre-back for Everton. Phil Jagielka has had a poor 2014, and Stones is capable of filling his boots for club and country.

Gary Cahill and Leighton Baines remain solid performers, although the latter had a disappointing World Cup and probably isn’t suited to England as much as Everton – Luke Shaw could challenge him for that role. Joe Hart remains the clear first-choice between the posts.

Realistically there’s little chance of England not qualifying for Euro 2016, despite the pessimism about the side. England have been drawn in a weak group, and with the expansion to a 24-team competition and two automatic qualifying slots available, England are seemingly fighting with Switzerland and Slovenia for two slots – with a play-off spot an unwanted back-up. The majority of matches will be against poor opposition where England command midfield and can attack in plenty of numbers.

This is the contradiction for Hodgson: the easy qualifying group gives him a chance to experiment in without much fear of failure, but the style of the games will be entirely different from the challenges awaiting England in the knockout games of Euro 2016. Expect some positive performances in qualification, before the old problems – the lack of a holding midfielder, the lack of reliable passers – become obvious in two years’ time against strong opposition.

Posted in , Internationals, Zonal Marking | 1 comment

September 3rd, 2014 by Michael Cox

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