Revealed: England’s Combination That Could Be Their Best Chance to Beat France — Richard Farley

Is it too much to suggest the difference between Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Stewart Downing could decide England’s first match? Of course it is. Questions like that are excessively incendiary, particularly when leaned on as leads for blog posts. Accept my apology, but look at the silver lining: My reliance on that kind of crutch shows just how important (I think) the decision will be.

After a tumultuous pre-tournament camp, most of Roy Hodgson’s starting XI seems set. Danny Welbeck looks favored to start up top (though we could see Andy Carroll). Ashley Young will support in front of a midfield of Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard, with James Milner playing right. The back line will be Glen Johnson, John Terry, Joleon Lescott and Ashley Cole in front of (the seemingly newly-crowned best goalkeeper in the world) Joe Hart.

The one question is left midfield. Much to the chagrin of Three Lions’ supporters, Liverpool’s Stewart Downing seemed to have the inside track when camp was called. Reliable in defense while reliably unspectacular in attack, Downing seemed way too Hodgson-y to sit on the bench. He was the perfect left wing to start opposite James Milner, the type of player that sends a clear message: We may be banal, but at least we’ll be symmetrical.

Then came England’s final friendly at Wembley against Belgium. With the Chelsea contingent (recovering from the winning Champions League) spared the first friendly in Oslo, last weekend’s tune-in was the only chance Hodgson had to start a full team in a semi-competitive environment (even if nobody told the Belgians they were allowed to break a sweat).

So it was no surprised that we saw the Chelsea-laden back line – Cole, Terry, and Gary Cahill along with Johnson – start. Gerrard and Parker were in the middle with Milner wide. Young and Welbeck, recovered from a lingering injury, started up top.

It bared every hint of a first choice team except one. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, not Downing, started on the left. Perhaps it was the one piece of whimsy an utterly unadventurous manager allowed himself with his final pre-tournament XI. Or perhaps “Ox,” like the rest of Saturday’s team, was truly, magnificently one of Hodgson’s intended starters for France.

Regardless of what Hodgson ultimately decides, he’s already begged the question: What are the virtues of starting Oxlade-Chamberlain over Downing?

There is a underlying, subtly remarkable aspect to the question. Oxlade-Chamberlain was supposed to be the wild card – the player occupying the Theo Walcott ceremonial, shot-in-the-dark spot in the squad. Originally, he wasn’t supposed to be anything more than an impact sub, but sometime during the last two weeks that’s changed. Some see him as one of England’s few points of dynamism. Others are picking him as the tournament’s potential breakout star. He’s even passed Walcott in the pecking order. Without warning or build up, he’s gone from risqué inclusion to vital member of the squad.

If that translates to a start against France, England will undoubtedly be better for it. Given France’s set up and personnel, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s inclusion would represent a low risk, high reward tweak to an otherwise pedestrian XI.

The reasons for this can be seen along France’s right. Second choice right back Mathieu Debuchy is forced into the starting XI thanks to another Bacary Sagna leg fracture. The Lille right back may be one of the best at his position in France, but he’s also a natural midfielder that has been converted to defense. He carries only five caps into Euro 2012, not surprising considering he’s only been playing his position for four years. Still, despite all the changes Laurent Blanc has undertaken since South Africa 2010, Debuchy’s rarely seen time. Now, he’s first choice in a major tournament.

If Debuchy has performed for Lille, he can certainly handle international football, though as we’ve seen with some individual performances over Euro’s first two days, there is a unique pressure that comes with playing in a major tournament (just ask Aleksandr Kerzhakov). It’s something Oxlade-Chamberlain could also experience. Then again, it’s also something he can help exploit, as is Debuchy’s tendency to commit too many fouls.

Oxlade-Chamberlain’s natural out-to-in can help free up the left flank for Ashley Cole, who would then have free reign to take on Debuchy. Or, if Debuchy follows Ox inside, that likely means Manchester City’s Samir Nasri – playing on France’s right flank – will be asked to track Cole. That’s also a match up England should exploit. With Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young both dangerous working in from the left (and with Steven Gerrard providing support from midfield), attacking the Nasri-Debuchy flank is England’s best chance for success against France.

And that’s why I just couldn’t resist. It’s one of the most trite things you can do: Lead your post with an argumentative question. But for England, the issue is just that important.

Could it decide the match? Who knows. There are so many things that go into a match, it’s foolish to say any single one will absolutely turn the tables, and with Debuchy (decent going forward) unlikely to provide a game-defining attacking threat, there’s limited risk to forgoing Downing for Oxlade-Chamberlain.

If the decision doesn’t decide the match, it will at least tell us a bit about Roy Hodgson. At club level, he has so much more knowledge of his players that it’s difficult to vehemently argue against his decisions. We can suggest Hodgson should do X and Y, but he knows so much more about Shane Long and Peter Odemwingie that our arguments have to be laced with a serious of cumbersome caveats (“I don’t know as much about Long as Roy does, but …”).

Just weeks into his job with the national team, Hodgson doesn’t have the same monopoly of knowledge over England. Like us, he is largely speculating what his players can do based on nothing more than limited information, a situation where he’ll likely have to act on instinct over certainty.

From what we know about Hodgson, Downing is the likely choice, but if he chooses Ox, Hodgson will be revealing a new, slightly adventurous side of himself.

Loose ends

  • One thing that could disrupt England left flank assault the problem in central defense. Gary Cahill’s out, Joleon Lescott is in, leaving left-sided central defenders for one spot. John Terry moved to the right against Belgium, and based on what we saw in South Africa, Terry becomes a different player when moved from left-center-half. As it concerns the attacking phase, Terry has become adept at reading Ashley Cole’s movements and adjusting accordingly. Will Joleon Lescott’s positioning be as seemless?
  • Against Belgium, Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard sat very deep, and though I’d caution against drawing too many conclusions on how that match played out (the lineup was selected before Hodgson saw the friendly was useless), the midfield’s positioning could lead to a very influential day for Yohan Cabaye. The Newcastle midfielder’s most effective when orchestrating from the level between the midfield’s last man (who will be Alou Diarra) and the opposition’s defensive midfielders. Unless Ashley Young is going to come all the way back and account for Cabaye (a bad idea if England has any intention of attacking), Cabaye could rack up some big passing numbers.
  • The Young-Diarra battle could be a big one. As we’ve seen over the last week-plus, Young will be the most important man in England’s Rooney-less attack. Thankfully, he won’t have to deal with Yann M’Vila, the Rennes destroyer likely to miss Monday’s match with an ankle injury. Alou Diarra, however, is still a force Young will have to avoid. If England leans left, that will help, but there may be no tricks for Young to rely on. He may just have to beat Diarra.
  • James Milner’s inclusion without Carroll starting up top looks strange until you remember who France starts on their left. Though you’d like to find a place in the team for Theo Walcott opposite a left back whose contributions going forward you can live with, Milner’s going to be much more help against Franck Ribery. And Glen Johnson needs all the help he can get.
  • The combination of Welbeck, Young, and Chamberlain can be the tournament’s quickest counterattacks. As was flashed this weekend, the transitions become hair-raising when Cole or Johnson can get forward from their fullback positions. It’s a feature that will make England dangerous to anybody they play. The only questions are how England will win the ball and whether the loss of Frank Lampard will debilitate their ability to break into counters.

Richard Farley is a freelance journalist and a former host of the EPL Talk Podcast. His work is prominently featured in NBC Sports’ soccer coverage. You can follow him on Twitter at @richardfarley.

15 thoughts on “Revealed: England’s Combination That Could Be Their Best Chance to Beat France — Richard Farley”

  1. Neither Downing or Ox should be starting. Ox on the left would expose the left way to much and Coles frailties. So Inspite of Downings attacking inability (based on last seasons form) i expect he will get the nod.

    England’s starting 11 no matter who you put out from the 23 man squad is better than any of their French counterparts. When you match the French forwards against our defense and midfield it’s not really a close competition, the only legit talent would be Lescott. Terry and Johnson in particular I think will be exploited by any one of or maybe even all of the following players Benzema, Ribbery, Nasri, Evra, Clichey, Ben Arfa, Cabaye, take your pick, it’s brutal.

    Parker, Gerrard and Cole are going to have their work cut out for them making up for the afore mentioned defenders and their deficiencies. I expect a clumsy/rash challenge by Terry, Cole, Milner of Johnson for a penalty or red card.

    If England win, it will be a bigger upset IMO than the Daines beating the Dutch. Perhaps intense drilled discipline and rigid shape with a back 6 from Roy will be the answer?

    The only saving grace / oportunity for englands attack would be if Koscielny plays as a starter in the the French back four, maybe young or welbeck can work some magic around him as he is the 1 weak link I see.

    I’ll have a stab at a prediction; 4 – 1 win for France.

    If England win then great, but there’s about as much chance of that as Modric staying at THFC, Roy getting fired before the 2014 World Cup or Ireland winning a game at these Euro’s.

    1. Lescott is a noob at this level, he will be the weak link, he is prone to the odd blunder. Johnson has a little experience but let’s face it, he is hardly top draw. Cole is the best left back in the world in my opinion. Terry will do well but the lack of pace he has and the fact Lescott is hardly quick is worrying.

      The midfield is fine, Downing is under-rated in my opinion. Parker and Gerrard will do a job, Milner is not great but when Rooney returns I expect Young to go on the right side of the midfield.
      Welbeck and Young will cause problems for the French as their defence is weak, probably worse than England’s.

      If we can get a draw I’ll be happy with that.

      1. You must be a Chelsea fan, Cole the best left back in the world? Hardly, he is not even England’s best left back never mind any other countries. I’m all for patriotism and would love to beat the french but there is a point where reality has to kick in right?

        Not long til we find out!

          1. Ok Chelsea, i’m not saying Cole in his prime wasn’t good, but now, at this point in his career he is not the best in the world, premier league or England, here is a list of left backs that are better than Cole in no particular order.

            Philip Lahm is better as he showed against Ronaldo the other day, and that’s not even his preferred position.

            I’m sure I’m missing a couple.

          2. Dream on.
            Baines, Marcello, Evra? No way are they better than Cole

            Alvez isn’t even a left back and Lahm is decent but no way better than Cole

            You’re going to have to think a little harder

          3. LOL…like I said I’m all for patriotism and it is admirable, but it’s just not true that Cole is the best in the world, and he isn’t better than Baines. This will be Cole’s last competition as even Roy realizes that Blaine’s is better and gets the job.

          4. Damn iPhone… Baines…Baines….Baines! Although I’m sure David “Blaine” would also be better than cole as he can levitate and his misdirection skills are superb.

      2. I blame Gareth Bale for chosing Wales, we would be in a far better situation….if only…Maybe there should be a GB team instead of just England.

        At least at the Olympics we have a real chance of winning. C’mon team GB win gold!

        1. That’s your answer, Bale? Someone who isn’t even a left back. Kind of sums up your argument. When Bale has played left back he’s sucked, he can’t defend and is better going forward, that’s why he got moved to the wing

  2. According to Jamie Carragher, Hodgson likes to play with wingers that help out on defense and that England will pack the midfield and play on the counter attack. He believes that Milner will thrive in this system because he is a grafter and that Wolcott won’t start but will only be brought in as a substitute if England are chasing the game.

  3. I won’t get to watch the England match as I have another commitment at the time, but I will say this: Alexi Lalas has no business telling England fans how delusional they were about their expectations. At least England is still a better team than the US and are more likely to win an international tournament before the USA than the USA are before England. Just look at the levels of expectations; USA beats Italy in a friendly game, and everyone gets all happy, whereas, England are expected to compete with Europe’s and the world’s best in international tournaments and that’s why they are glum faces when they disappoint. That’s the level of expectations between the two sides. So who the hell is Lalas to say that England’s fans are delusional and that America could have easily beaten England during the World Cup two years ago. Really, Lalas? If the USA could have easily beaten England, how come they only managed a draw and the only goal they scored was an error from England’s goalkeeper?

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