October has never been the time to discuss international football too intensely. The collective football world is either coming off a major tournament or slightly too far away from another. There’s still lots of time for development throughout the season which, carrying an inevitable recency bias, will matter more than right now. We should treat Roy Hodgson’s latest squad like an in-law, pleasant nods while suppressing more honest opinions in our own heads. — ‘Ryan Mason? Haha, yes of course!’ Internally tuts. — This new edition of ‘Hodgson selects an in-form player’ will be mildly intriguing with Jonjo Shelvey looking to fill a hole in midfield. Hodgson in all his tenure has never employed the same side in the same formation. It suggests there is opportunity for everyone within the squad to stake their claim. Even Jamie Vardy. Unfortunately the only meaningful game is against Switzerland, negating the chance to see how everyone performs against credible opposition.
One of the most fascinating facets of Hodgson’s prospective decision-making will be in the centre back department. John Stones’ inclusion in this discussion is impressive given he only truly broke into Everton’s side in the second half of last season. Half a season of football was enough for Raheem Sterling to start in a major tournament so why can’t Stones after this season? Everton under Roberto Martinez are not quite porous, but certainly have an air of permeability that Stones’ insertion into the side has, understandably, failed to fix alone. His actual defending is decent — it’s rare to find a truly great centre half now, even less so at Stones’ age — but the ability on the ball he has showcased is arguably the best of any centre back in the Premier League. This is even more of an asset to England who have long struggled to keep possession against quality opposition. Stones can amend this with his willingness to play the ball out from the back, compared to someone like Cahill who often appears flustered for England. Stones’ chances of starting increase with each game he plays. There’s the small bonus of being able to fill out at right back if needed, but England have a multitude of players to do. Stones represents a decision that shows what Hodgson values in his side, if he recognises the issue of ball retention then Stones is a crucial pick to set England on the right track.
Chris Smalling briefly looked like he’d created a cocoon in May, locked himself in, then emerged a dominant central defender. His physicality was never an issue but it now seemed matched by his concentration during the game, leading to 3 clean sheets in 4 games. Yet, as with many things at the start of the season, not all is as it seems. Playing behind Carrick and especially Schneiderlin creates the safest of havens for Smalling. In the defeat to Swansea, when United’s midfield was bypassed frequently, the same defence appeared from the mist of last year. United will quite possibly lead the league in clean sheets this year if they persist with this midfield, but the role that Smalling has to play is reduced enough to flatter him. This context is important to consider if having to decide between Stones and Smalling. Toss in the deficiencies Smalling has with the ball and it should be an easy decision.
One man who might stop this decision from having to be made is Gary Cahill. He’s been a certainty in the team since his move to Chelsea. However with Zouma lurking and the possibility of Stones’ arrival, Cahill has a serious chance of losing his spot for club and country. He provides an acceptable medium of Stones’ technique and Smalling’s physicality without excelling in either area. The experience of playing previously for Hodgson and with Joe Hart will also surely count for something. Tactically this trio of central defenders gives Hodgson the chance to play a higher line no matter who he selects. With the fullback slots likely to be manned by Nathaniel Clyne and Luke Shaw, England will have respectable speed right across the back line for the first time in many years.
Without Jordan Henderson, Hodgson can try out some new looks in the centre. Carrick should start given his unparalleled ability to take care of the ball and protect a defence. As mentioned before, England’s main issue lies with attacks stagnating in midfield. This could be put down to numerous games against lesser sides in qualifying who have sat deep making England create in front of them. Jonjo Shelvey isn’t the player to fix this, in fact his inclusion would more likely exacerbate the issue but Hodgson will no doubt experiment with him. James Milner and Fabian Delph cannot deal with this either, but both provide increased defensive effort which leaves Shelvey’s prospects looking dim. A possible solution is placing Oxlade-Chamberlain in midfield, someone who will drive forwards with the ball breaking the monotonous and often lateral nature of England’s advances. Hodgson has never really shown an experimental side in regard to unconventional lineups though. There are few other noteworthy developments in midfield, unless you’re an optimist on Ryan Mason’s career.
Wayne Rooney’s stuttering form to start the season has led to the biggest questioning of his ability he’s ever faced which is a testament to his consistency. Over the last 18 months Rooney, now stripped of his speed and agility, has looked to transition himself into a wily finisher who can facilitate for other attackers around him. While his own goals dried up, many praised his passing, work rate and leadership. While this was all deserved for the most part, there was always the nagging sense that you could put Rooney into a Tyne-Wear derby and not really notice him. His first touch has long deserted him and the work-rate that was so often the reliable base of any Rooney performance is no longer there to be counter on. The England goalscoring record could provide a welcome distraction from his glaring inadequacies right now. The moral of this ongoing story? Be the captain of every side you play in.
Yet there are more discussions outside of the swirling debate that orbits Rooney eternally. Harry Kane looks off-colour or is returning to his normal abilities, depending on which way you’d like to look at it. It’s probable that Kane simply needs a rest. Danny Welbeck’s injury will hurt England, given his quality performances on the international stage that contrast with his time at Arsenal so far. Danny Ings, Daniel Sturridge and Saido Berahino will need some games to show they should be in contention. Don’t rule out Callum Wilson getting a call-up for the November games, if he prolongs the purple patch he’s in right now.
So, Jamie Vardy, eh? As a relatively rational Leicester fan, I feel well positioned to discuss him and his second call-up to the national squad. Many raised their eyebrows seeing him picked again. He is neither a prolific goalscorer (yet) nor a consistent starter at a top team, leaving him dangerously outside of the accepted venn diagram of ‘Prestige players’ and ‘Rampant goalscorers’ which comprises of all England players ever. This leaves his selection to be ridiculed by the numerous doubters of the England squad. On top of this, he’s disliked for generally being a horrible player for your team to play against. He is rather like having a sneaky swig of someone’s gin at a house party: quick, reckless and only produces the sensation of vomit tunneling up your trachea, if his hardened face and busy elbows are up against your club that week. But like your Dad will say with the gin, “You get a bottle yourself when you’re older, more experienced and you’ll love it son.”. The same will occur with Vardy. Once those three lions are on his chest, you may find your one-way feud with him thawing somewhat, the burning sensation in your throat fading away.
I’m not here to tell you he’ll revolutionise England’s side or even make a palpably positive contribution. His first touch is questionable and his vision is clearly the most unrefined aspect of his game, often overlooking easy passes in favour of head-down-racist-in-a-casino type charging. However there is one thing to be said of his ability. Vardy is elite, possibly unmatched, in his harrying of defenders. Now this in itself is likely to be scoffed at, “Strikers are for scoring goals, what use is this ‘harrying’ you speak of?”, a particularly obnoxious friend might exclaim. Yet if Vardy’s relentless pressing in combination with his pace has led to several goals in the Premier League (just watch the 5-3 win for Leicester against Manchester United), then why not for England? Without Danny Welbeck to do the dirty work up front, Hodgson will go looking for a replacement. Harry Kane’s heavily fatigued, Theo Walcott’s a little out of sorts, Vardy might even start.
Now that really is a reason to discuss international football in October.