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.
- 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.