England Must Focus On Their Central Midfield for Brazil 2014

As England’s run through the Euro ended in a painfully familiar fashion, all hope of an improbable run concluded bluntly on penalties.

After the match, manager Roy Hodgson focused on the positive aspects of England’s four matches. He remained proud of the spirit and resiliency his defense showed in every match while almost under constant duress from their opponents.

Yet, there is no escaping the bitter truth that despite all the talent England put out on the field, they were the inferior team against Italy. Despite a few sporadic opportunities, England was outplayed by an Italian team who will rue their poor finishing. Just like in their prior matches, England was extremely lucky to have survived the onslaught of possession and attempts Italy maintained.

Moving forward, there is room for optimism for the Three Lions considering the state they were in the weeks leading up to the Euro. Despite Hodgson’s short amount of time, the players responded well to simplistic tactics where everyone was on the same page. Unlike prior tournaments where England lacked chemistry and understanding, this summer’s squad battled their way to being a couple of penalty kicks short of the semifinals.

However, what was concerning was despite the match against Sweden, England offered little up front in terms of creating chances and scoring goals. Players like Ashley Young, Wayne Rooney and especially Andy Carroll looked unsure of what to do up front and often resorted to taking matters into their own hands by charging at defenders alone. Unlike Italy who was able to systematically break down England’s dogged defense, England simply were too basic as they depended on their forwards and wingers who were too wasteful with the ball.

Hodgson even admitted that he was disappointed with Rooney’s performance considering how much responsibility was put on his shoulders alone to win matches.  “When he missed the first two games we were all believing that what we need to do now is get to the third game and Wayne Rooney will win us the championships. That maybe was too much to ask of him. He certainly tried very hard but he didn’t have his best game and I think he would admit that.”

While Rooney would probably admit that he didn’t play as well as he desired, the irritating fact is that poor form on his part is an issue that has been previously raised. Time and time again, England has hoped that Rooney would finally break out of his shell and become just as good as we’ve all seen him be at Old Trafford.

In my mind, Rooney will never improve and become an elite playmaker as long as he’s surrounded by the same players. He has rarely performed well with the ball service he has received from primarily Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in the central midfield. Rooney has often struggled with receiving any chances provided for him by a midfield that’s too inept and pinned back to get the ball on a consistent basis. It’s illogical that Rooney and the rest of England’s forwards are going to dramatically improve with counters when most of the team is standing back and one or two players are driving forward against groups of defenders.

Seriously, thinking Rooney is going to magically become world class with England’s midfield is like believing that beating a dead horse enough times is going to make it come back to life.

Yet, what’s very scary is Hodgson’s assured belief that he must continue to play with the usual faces. He has already talked about how he wants to continue to use Gerrard, Lampard, Gareth Barry, Scott Parker, Ashley Cole and John Terry because he wants to have the right blend of ages like Germany has. “Everyone has seen how well Germany have kicked on since 2006. They have brought in younger players and the older ones are still performing to a good level. We have to take heart from that.”

Well, while Hodgson can “take heart from that”, a quick look at the German team shows that besides Miroslav Klose and back-up keeper Tim Wiese, everyone else is younger than 30 which shows that their great number of budding superstars is coupled with elite players who are in the prime of their careers. The same can’t be said for England’s Old Guard as they are clearly in the twilight stages of their careers and are clearly nowhere near as good as they were years ago.

Therefore, what Hodgson must realize is that if England is going to have any shot in Brazil, there needs to be immediate change. Not only does that mean that the days of Gerrard and Lampard must cease, but England need to put aside the notion that their national team isn’t good enough to maintain possession.

Yet, whether England can ever move forward depends on whether Hodgson and his staff can put aside a national inferiority complex about how well the team can play. This notion that England should just accept their limitations was maintained by comments made by former England striker Michael Owen when he stated, “Easy for people to say ‘until we keep possession better we will never win anything’. We are not as good as others at doing that. We played to our strengths but are just not quite good enough. We were hoping to ‘do a Chelsea’”.

This idea that England must “do a Chelsea” in order to win needs to be eradicated as there is no reason why the Three Lions must play like Greece or the Czech Republic because they clearly have more talented players than those smaller nations. What is truly befuddling is why England have to settle on just surviving matches through last ditch defending and desperate counter attacks in order to win when so many of these players participate in the Premier League which is widely considered one of if not the best league in the world.

As we all prepare for Brazil, England look very promising with every part of their lineup besides the central midfield. Starting from the back, Joe Hart was superb in goal as he was constantly called on to make one key save after another in every match. The defense also looks very strong as by the time England travels to South America, England could have a back line that consists of promising fullbacks Kyle Walker and Micah Richards, and possible center-backs like Chris Smalling, Joleon Lescott, Phil Jones, and Gary Cahill.

Up front, the wingers should consist of Ashley Young on the left, who will continue to hit his peak form with Manchester United, and on the right should be the swift Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with Theo Walcott off the bench. While Wayne Rooney who will be 28 come 2014 should still be included, Danny Welbeck should be his partner after he was quite impressive this Euro (91% pass completion which is level with Mezut Ozil and Andres Iniesta). Daniel Sturridge is another option worth watching as his finishing and ball control is excellent.

That then leaves the all-important central midfield which is of course vital to any team’s chances. England need to have midfielders who can keep the ball in order to give the defense a respite and to give the forwards proper ball service by building well-developed, calculated chances. The two young talents England should develop from this time forth are Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere and Manchester United’s Tom Cleverley.

Once Wilshere is fully recovered from his ankle injury, the 20 year old should be immediately reinstalled into England’s starting XI as he is a versatile box-to-box midfielder who can act as both an attacker and a holder of the ball. In Arsenal’s possession-oriented system, Wilshere has already taken great strides forward in his play which would greatly improve England’s ability to maintain possession and create chances.

Like Wilshere, Cleverley’s early progress was also stunted due to a foot injury due to a harsh tackle by Bolton’s Kevin Davies. This was a major shame as it derailed what could have been a phenomenal debut season as he played fantastically well as a central attacking midfielder. He linked up seamlessly with his Manchester United teammates as he showed that he could make incisive passes to break down opposing defenses. He also showed steadfast determination in getting back on defense which demonstrates his versatility and commitment which would greatly benefit England.

Of course both Wilshere and Cleverley need time to develop further in their young careers. Yet, they both have enough promise to transform England from being rigid and conservative into an attacking force that plays together as a team. Hodgson would need to incorporate a more aggressive and clinical style with the chances created. It would also greatly assist players like the maligned Rooney who could finally stay up front and be set up with glorious opportunities rather than having to run back in midfield or in defense.

Overall, there were a lot of positives England could take away from their form in Poland and the Ukraine. Yet, all of that will mean absolutely nothing if they don’t continue to improve by bringing in fresh faces to rejuvenate the squad and improve the quality of play.

15 thoughts on “England Must Focus On Their Central Midfield for Brazil 2014”

  1. Very good read but I am curious as to what formation/system would be applicable for England to play going forward with the youngsters?

  2. Thank you and in my mind England can still play a 4-4-2 but just have midfielders who can control the run pf play better.

  3. Great stuff Michael. I couldn’t agree more about Jack and Tom. Wilshere has been impressive since his loan season at Bolton (and Sturridge too, for that matter) and Cleverley is only going to keep getting better as well. It was sad to see Stevie G look a step slower than the competition this summer. He can still distribute with the best of them and he clearly still knows how to put the ball in the back of the net, but we might be seeing the beginning of the end for him physically.

    I also believe Ox is the man for the right wing going forward. Regardless of the manager, I think England would be best served by letting the young core of Jones, Smalling, Richards, Wilshere, Cleverley and Ox gel together throughout qualifying.

  4. Thank you very much. I thought Gerrard played as well as he could which was quite lucky for England considering his age and the lack of playing time he had this past season due to injury. He can always be relied on to distribute and make an occasional glorious past but we are definitely seeing the end of him in general. I absolutely agree that all of those young players should start to receive immediate playing time in the qualifiers but I’m worried it won’t happen because Hodgson has already talked about still using the Old Guard in the upcoming matches which really doesn’t make any sense to me.

  5. Great write-up, Michael. “Dust” and I have probably been the two most annoying proponents for shaking things up and not just bringing in some young blood, but putting it to use as well.

    My concern is that Hodgson will bring them in, but make them conform to his “2 banks of 4” strategy, if that is what you call it. To my mind it is more like a capitulation (although I agree with your above analysis of the 4-4-2).

    I think Roy did a good job in getting the team ready for the Euros in a limited amount of time. I take nothing away from the team’s defensive tenacity, but that will get England nowhere going forward toward the WC. I would also like to see consideration given to promising players in the “lesser” clubs. The fact that you play for a “big” club does not make you a “big” player. England miss out by not casting a wider net.

  6. Nice article, I agree with you on the whole sale changes that are needed and also that Wayne Rooney was never going to deliver us anything even remotely close to his Man Utd form especially after not even figuring in the friendlies to keep up his fitness level. I think Baines, Walker, Cahill, Phil jones, Livermore, Cleverly, Young, Johnson, Rooney, Welbeck and eventually chamberlain give us an immediate upgrade for a starting 11, a great strong, but attacking team with the fluidity needed to make the right adjustments during a game also.

    Ox isn’t ready, he just isn’t, being fast isn’t enough, Walcott has proven that, he wasted balls, shots, lacked the smarts in space, he can be a great player, but he needs a lot more than just 12 games of first team football before he makes it ahead of Adam Johnson. Remember Owen had set the premier league on fire before hoddle included him, ox hasn’t done that, wenger didn’t think he’s was ready yet, and he was right.

    Wilshire is ok, he has shown talent for sure but still has a massive injury to overcome (tom huddlestone also suffered the same injury, he has all but evaporated at spurs) and still has a lot to learn, he is still too sloppy with his passing, Another couple of years in development after coming off his injury and maybe he can turn into what people are hoping for. We have all seen this before from english center midfielders, they have been talked up as pass matsers and our saviours, but rarely deliver at the international level, Jamie Redknapp, Joe Cole, Nigel Clough, all far better than Wiltshire has proven so far, and they failed miserably at the international level

    Livermore reminds me of a Paul Ince in midfield, watch him this season for Spurs, or just watch some of the reruns on fox soccer of him this past season, Jake playing on front of Phill Jones at center back for England would be a sight to see IMO. Speaking of Paul Ince, his son Tim, is better than Ox technically and just as fast. He turned down west ham (who can blame him ;p ), but could find himself in the premier league soon, giving us even more depth at the winger position.

    These players need to be added now, not in a year, now, so they can accuire the experience and gel other wise it’ll be another tournament of excuses and hope for “next time”. For Roy to admit before hand he didn’t expect much from this tourney when he took over, to not have played those guys is a waste, an absolute waste, shame on you Roy!

    There is no reason in the qualifying group we have for the world cup that we cant Qualify using the younger players. The issue will be hodgpodge, I really don’t think Roy has what it takes and be able to make it work. We will have to wait for someone else that gets it, to come in and encourage the kind of football that will win us over & win us silverware.

    1. Dust your point about Wilshiere is what i was trying to tell you the other day about possible players on the England team. Its one thing to say that you have players that are more technical than those who play now for England but are those players really technically good enough to make a difference on the world stage. Sure Young may be a pretty good prem player with decent technical ability, but when you compare his ability to those around Europe he is inferior. So to say we must pick a more technical team isnt good enough. You do need some technical players but you need to blend then with your fast and strong players to create an english style team. The team you listed above would still go out at the round of 16 in Brazil.

      1. I don’t agree with your assertions, but that’s ok. Young just hit bad form in a poor system which is and has been my point all along even with my suggestions of a new squad that I think could easily achieve success, if in a more aggressive system and positive system.

  7. “In Arsenal’s possession-oriented system, Wilshere has already taken great strides forward in his play which would greatly improve England’s ability to maintain possession and create chances.”

    Maybe this is the key. Instead of marginalizing Arsene Wenger and Arsenal and other EPL teams like Swansee that preach possession oriented football they need to be commended and supported. Perhaps EPL needs to change to encourage more fluid style of playing and to discourage ‘getting stuck in’ tactics. The reality is that most of the player development happens at the club level. If a player is not in the environment that enables him to develop possession oriented skill there is not much national team manager can do to overcome it.

    1. To be fair, man u, man city, spurs, Newcastle, arsenal, Norwich, Swansea, to a lesser degree qpr & wigan do play a passising exciting brand of football, Chelsea being the big miss in those names (Liverpool too but I expect hat to change with Rodgers and his back room staff arriving at anfield). The other clubs not mentioned should step up their game, but I think they will be forced to in the next few years as the game evolves.

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