While England fans can enjoy the forthcoming friendlies with Chile and Germany with the knowledge that World Cup qualification has already been secured, Three Lions head coach Roy Hodgson will know these matches are of significant importance.
England have just three fixtures confirmed before they name their World Cup squad next summer (they will have further warm-up games once the provisional squad is set), meaning these two games constitute a large part of Hodgson’s “live” preparations for next summer—and the group he will take into battle there.
Experienced as he is in the particular challenges of international tournaments (he previously took Switzerland to the 1994 World Cup), Hodgson is acutely aware of the importance of meticulous preparation if a team is to achieve on the biggest stage.
To date, the 66-year-old has been a calm, measured leader of the national side—with such patience gradually bringing moderate rewards. Impressive victories over Montenegro and Poland in England’s two most recent fixtures hinted at an attacking verve and conviction that has so often been lacking from past displays, but such vibrancy did not mask a number of areas of doubt heading into next summer.
Call-ups for the likes of Southampton duo Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez have dominated the buildup before Chile’s arrival on Friday, as the media understandably gravitates to the prospect of someone new (and therefore exciting) forcing their way into Hodgson’s squad for next summer.
In reality, however, for the large part it is only the fringe places in the squad—the identities of the 21st, 22nd and 23rd men on the plane, for example—that are up for grabs. Hodgson appears to have consolidated the majority of his first XI over time, although there remain a few discussions outstanding.
While injuries may play their part—do they ever not?—England look reasonably settled in the attacking areas, with the Daniel Sturridge and Wayne Rooney partnership already looking effective, even if time is needed for a more nuanced understanding to develop.
Danny Welbeck seems to have earned his role out on the left (while he may struggle for regular minutes with his club, he has never failed to deliver for his country when called upon—and should continue to be selected until that stops being the case). Meanwhile, Andros Townsend and Theo Walcott mean Hodgson has two options he can have some confidence in to provide genuine pace and width on the right.
Behind them, the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jermain Defoe, Rickie Lambert, Rodriguez and Lallana are vying for back-up inclusion.
It is in deeper positions, then, that Hodgson has areas to concentrate on. At left-back he faces a decision between Ashley Cole and Leighton Baines; Cole has been arguably England’s finest player for nearly a decade, but Baines has become one of the Premier League’s finest over the last two years.
“Sounds like one of them good problems,” as Marlo Stanfield might say.
Cole appears to be the narrow favourite—he perhaps remains a slightly superior defender, although Hodgson will be anxious to discover how long Jose Mourinho plans to leave him out of the first team at Chelsea—but Baines is improving rapidly and, as he showed in Cole’s absence against Montenegro and Poland, offers a genuine threat from dead balls and crosses from the left.
Are such attributes not more valuable to England’s cause, especially if Welbeck (who likes to roam centrally) is selected ahead of them?
"Both have their supporters,” Hodgson said last month, according to The Guardian. “Both are fantastic footballers.
“I am not going to say one is No1. It does give the manager a headache because I have to decide on one and whoever I choose will divide opinion."
To a great extent, however, the “headache” is one of limited stakes. Whoever is chosen can be relied upon to perform well. If you were being picky, it might be suggested that Hodgson should be more concerned with giving a third left-back, Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs, to game time over the next week, in the event that injury befalls one of his main men further down the line.
As has been greatly covered in the press, the No. 1 goalkeeper position is another source of debate for Hodgson—although the options are of lesser quality. Hodgson remains insistent that Joe Hart is his first choice despite a well-publicised recent loss of form (one that, like Cole, has temporarily cost him his starting berth at Manchester City). But giving Celtic’s Fraser Forster and John Ruddy (who both must slightly fear Ben Foster’s return from injury for their own places) some international minutes prior to next summer is eminently sensible.
In 2010, Fabio Capello paid the price for failing to duly address his goalkeeping dilemma—watching Robert Green throw away two points against the United States before reverting back to the more experienced David James.
Hart seems certain to remain the No. 1 unless his omission with his club continues (which looks a 50-50 proposition at the moment).
"If I show a lack of faith in Joe it would be undeserving after what he has done for England and it would definitely affect his confidence negatively," the England coach told reporters last week. "I would be a lot more concerned if, in the spring of next year as we are building up to the selection he was a constant reserve, never getting a game of football.
“That would bother me, but I will cross that bridge when I come to it."
The centre-back pairing seems reasonably settled, even if it is not of a comparable vintage to previous years. Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill both have a decent understanding and have shown themselves to be a solid partnership over the course of a qualification campaign, albeit without anyone going as far as to compare them to the Sol Campbell-Rio Ferdinand alliance of 2002.
Recruiting one of Ferdinand’s more recent partners, John Terry, back into the fold would barely improve matters, and might only provide additional off-field distractions. Michael Dawson’s recent form might also warrant a call-up, but is he really going to dislodge those ahead of him?
Right-back is another reasonably settled position for Hodgson, although the withdrawal of Kyle Walker from the game against Chile really should draw into focus the slightly injury-prone nature of both the Tottenham full-back and Glen Johnson—the presumed first choice.
In case either ends up missing the World Cup after another setback, blooding a third option would appear to be sensible.
Again, Southampton have a viable candidate in the ever-improving Nathaniel Clyne, while Manchester City’s Micah Richards is returning to form and fitness at the right time. But the fact Hodgson declined to call up a replacement for Walker this week gives a clear indication of his thought process.
The former Liverpool and Fulham manager clearly sees Chris Smalling as his third right-back, the Manchester United man’s versatility (long-term he would appear more likely to be a centre-back) an advantage when it comes to the limited spaces available in World Cup squads.
With Walker suspended for the last match against Poland, it was Smalling who stepped into the breach.
Hodgson has always been a fan of Smalling—signing him for Fulham from non-league Maidstone United, a club he too played for nearly 40 years earlier
"He was very much the one who gave me my chance at Fulham," Smalling told the Daily Star last month. "I do have a good relationship with him and it’s nice to go away with England and see someone I worked with before. It’s just about making sure I work hard and play here to get my chance with England."
Smalling’s United team-mate, Phil Jones, is similarly versatile—and perhaps his role is the one thing Hodgson can deduce from the upcoming friendlies. Like Smalling, Jones sees himself as a centre-back in the long-term for club and country, but for now he is used as and where he is needed.
"Since I broke into Blackburn's first team, centre-back has always been the target,” Jones told reporters at England training on Thursday. “Hopefully I can do that but am just really focused on playing and enjoying my football.
"I see it as an advantage if you can play in numerous positions because it can only help you.”
On Sunday, in one of the biggest games of United’s season, that versatility meant playing in midfield. Jones responded by putting in a eye-catching performance; repaying David Moyes’ faith in selecting him over £28 million Marouane Fellaini as he ended Arsenal attacks time after time in a 1-0 win.
Moyes evidently sees the same things in Jones his predecessor Sir Alex Ferguson once did. Ferguson had high praise for Jones after United won the title in May, as per ESPN FC:
The way he is looking, could be our best ever player.
I think Jones may be one of the best players we have ever had, not matter where we play him.
He can play anywhere on the pitch.
He has such a massive influence, with his instinct and reading of the game. He has a drive about him.
Hodgson, who was present for the game at Old Trafford, would surely have been intrigued by Jones’ performance (while simultaneously delighted by the work rate and hunger Wayne Rooney showed). Of all the positional battles he must weigh up over the next few months, it is his midfield axis that should be the key concern.
Captain Steven Gerrard appears a shoo-in, but his midfield partner remains a source of debate. Frank Lampard and Michael Carrick started one game apiece of the last qualifiers, but the Chelsea man, in particular, failed to impress as Gerrard’s partner. While the debate has run throughout their careers, in their twilight it is surely beyond doubt that the duo are simply far too similar to offer the flexible central partnership demanded of modern football.
Carrick is similarly afflicted—he is undoubtedly a supreme passer and conductor of play, but, while a great reader of the game, he lacks the bite in the tackle of a true defensive midfielder. Again, a younger Gerrard had the talent to be the more “active” enforcer alongside Carrick, but at 33, he has lost that extra burst of pace that allowed him to be so all-action.
Nowadays, at Liverpool, Gerrard often sits deeper alongside a true defensive midfielder, Lucas Leiva (although a recent switch from 4-2-3-1 to 3-5-2 has altered the dynamic slightly). That is the sort of player England need, but finding one has proven difficult.
After his performance against Arsenal, Jones surely warrants further examination in the role (he did play there against Brazil in the Maracana earlier this year).
"I think he [Hodgson] sees me as a centre-half, but we have got some top players in the squad and it is never going to be easy to break your way through,” Jones added. "The more I keep playing well for my club, then the more chances I will get on the international stage."
Another of Capello’s mistakes at the 2010 World Cup was to omit Scott Parker, the only central midfielder (other than Gerrard) of real bite in the tackle. Instead he went with Gerrard, Lampard, Carrick and Gareth Barry—all accomplished players, but lacking in the ability to break up and disrupt play with a well-timed challenge.
While Parker might have only been of limited help, England’s weakness in this area (and many others) were brutally exposed by Germany as they swept through midfield with abandon in that infamous 4-1 win.
A year later, Parker—back at the heart of Capello’s England team—was celebrating being named PFA Footballer of the Year.
Jones has all the attributes England should be coveting in a midfield partner for Gerrard and has shown he can produce at the highest level. He also has demonstrated the occasional burst forward from deep, another handy threat for England to have.
Lampard, Carrick and Jack Wilshere are all very good players—but they repeat many of Gerrard’s strengths and do not mask the deficiencies slowly creeping into his game.
The speculation in the buildup will focus on Hart, or Cole and Baines, or the Southampton cohort. But it is how Jones is employed in each of these friendlies that might be most illuminating for England’s long-term prospects.
As Hodgson noted: "I need to be wiser in March."
England's Current Depth Chart
Ignoring the three goalkeepers, and assuming that Roy Hodgson decides to stick with his currently preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, here is how his depth chart currently looks. This also ignores injuries:
|England's Current Squad Options|
|Position||First Choice||Back-up||In the hunt|
|LB||Ashley Cole||Leighton Baines||Kieran Gibbs|
|RB||Glen Johnson||Kyle Walker|
|CB||Phil Jagielka||Phil Jones||Steven Caulker|
|CB||Gary Cahill||Chris Smalling||Joleon Lescott|
|CM||Steven Gerrard||Michael Carrick||Tom Cleverley|
|CM||Frank Lampard||Jack Wilshere||Jordan Henderson|
|AML||Danny Welbeck||James Milner||Jay Rodriguez|
|AMR||Theo Walcott||Andros Townsend||Alex Chamberlain|
|No. 10||Wayne Rooney||Ross Barkley||Adam Lallana|
|CF||Daniel Sturridge||Rickie Lambert||Jermain Defoe|
Also on the radar: Ashley Young, Raheem Sterling, Aaron Lennon, Michael Dawson, Micah Richards, Andy Carroll.