Anyone who watched last summer’s World Cup will have been using the recent internationals to cast a critical eye over the shape of the England squad. It’s one that, we’re told, has some of the best attacking options of recent years. Frankly, I don’t doubt that; Rooney looks hungry and unshakeable, Sterling and Welbeck are dangerous. We’ve hardly seen anything of Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain, but their pace could be effective. Sturridge is returning to form for Liverpool and of course there’s Harry Kane, who scored 78 seconds into his competitive debut and is joint top of the Premier League scorers chart going into the weekend.
Even Andros Townsend seems willing to put his dreadful club form behind him and chip in with a goal or two. Roy Hodgson has almost too many options in these positions; players like Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert can’t seem to force themselves into the team. Goal-machines Danny Ings and Charlie Austin don’t appear likely to earn a call-up at this stage. Obviously things change and as soon as we get to a major competition they’ll all be as useful as a chocolate teapot. But there are more important issues in the side; I’m not going to get into all of them, but there was one that I noticed in Tuesday’s Italy game in particular, namely the dearth of quality right-backs.
Anyone who knows me will be aware that I sing Nathaniel Clyne’s praises like Pavarotti in his heyday. Maybe it’s because he’s a Londoner, maybe it’s a hangover from some excellent performances he managed under my expert reins on Football Manager ’11 with Southampton. I’m not sure, but I really do rate him. That’s why I was so dismayed to watch him floundering around the Juventus Stadium this week.
Of course, everybody has off days, it was a daunting away game against an intimidating side: those Italian wing-backs can make a wide defender’s day hell, and it’s not like he got a lot of cover from Roy’s tight diamond formation. When he didn’t rush too far up field and get caught out of position he looked OK defensively and he had the pace to make up ground when the Italians attacked. But the main issue was his play on the ball – his first touch was heavy and his passing was as bad as Fabian Delph’s (don’t get me started). Repeatedly he’d make a good run into a dangerous channel only to hand over possession and send his team scampering back.
Kyle Walker replaced Clyne at half time. He’s a much more established player in the England set-up and it showed on this occasion. He looked more composed and frankly better, but I can’t help but think that his only attribute is his blistering pace. It seems to me that, beyond this, he doesn’t offer much, I could be being unfair but he never really stands out. But where are the other options? I think we’ll all agree that 30-year-old Glen Johnson, who doesn’t seem capable of holding down a shirt at Liverpool, is probably best left out. That’s not to say he hasn’t been useful in the past – he’s got 54 caps after all – and I suppose he can be viewed as a relatively acceptable back up. But, like Walker, he’s rarely ever stood out. People will say that full-backs don’t need to stand out, but when you play against Philipp Lahm or Marcelo you know about it.
If we had it my way we’d see Micah Richards – that knight-errant, overseas, resplendent in magnificent purple – in the squad. But I think that’s fairly unlikely; Roy’s suspicious (and this is one of few areas where I agree with him) of those few playing on foreign turf. Richards isn’t exactly a fixture in the Fiorentina side, one that often plays with three at the back and wingbacks. Moreover, playing in Serie A he often comes up against unusual formations and tactics that are relatively uncommon on the international stage. That said, he would have understood the Italians better than the England team on Tuesday, but I suppose that’s not a strong enough reason for calling him up…
At this point it becomes definitively clear that there really aren’t very many options. Kieran Trippier and Eric Dier have been touted as possible stars for the future, but we’ve still got plenty more to see. The same is true of Carl Jenkinson; Arsenal sent him out on loan because they have better options. To put him in the England squad would be like accepting that it’s a worse team that Arsenal – and I, for one, won’t stand for that. Wenger kept Calum Chambers instead and, right now he doesn’t look like a bad option. He’s slower than almost every other player I’ve mentioned on this post, but he works hard and he stays back rather than rushing forward; he makes his tackles, blocks crosses and he’s pretty big too. I was surprised to see him get his England cap before Clyne but maybe he did deserve it. We haven’t seen much of him on the ball, though, and he’s a long way from first choice at the Emirates.
Roy, it seems, is trying out as many of his available options as he dares – he even experimented with Milner there in the build-up to the World Cup. While I didn’t agree with the formation on Tuesday, it was a good way of determining the strengths of Clyne and Walker. I don’t think it would be fair to write the former off based on that appearance; he did look decent against Lithuania (not that that means very much). I’ve criticised Chambers in the past but maybe we do need to see more of him; perhaps only if he can keep a spot in Wenger’s starting line-up. All in all, I’m afraid, there isn’t much to look forward to.