Free of the shackles that have hampered squads of yesteryear, this young, vibrant England side are ready to be unleashed on the world stage. Roy Hodgson will field an XI bristling with youthful exuberance and underpinned by a few experiences figures; a marriage that will see the Three Lions surprise plenty in Brazil.
That’s the narrative that optimistic England supporters are sticking with anyway.
But the truth is that while Hodgson is perhaps not as dull and dreary as many would make out, he is staunch in his pragmatism, and the team he sends out to face Italy on June 14 will reflect that.
Taking into account the most recent murmurings in the media, here’s the team that’s expected to take to the field against the Azzurri for the Three Lions’ opener, how the Italians look likely to line-up and the major conclusions we can draw ahead of this vital game in Group D:
Defence Settled And A Little Underrated
In the build-up to the tournament, the glaring weakness in this England team—so we were told—was the back four. But in truth, you could argue that assessment is a little harsh.
Joe Hart has re-established himself after a mid-season blip with Manchester City and he looks in peak condition ahead of the finals. And despite the cries from some quarters of the media to reintegrate John Terry into this set-up, Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill have formed an excellent partnership at the heart of the defence.
Flanking them will be right-back Glen Johnson and left-back Leighton Baines. The latter has enjoyed an excellent season at Everton and fought off competition from Ashely Cole and Luke Shaw to nail down a starting berth, while Johnson has next to no competition for his spot. The Liverpool man has looked a little out of sorts in the warm-up games, and if there is to be a chink in England’s defensive armoury, it’s probably him.
Liverpool Midfield Axis Picks Itself
In the holding midfield berths, the playmaking skills of Steve Gerrard and the unrelenting industry of Jordan Henderson make for a fine combination. Both players are wholly familiar with each others game, and each is an idyllic stylistic foil for the other.
Gerrard has grown into his role as a deep midfielder and was superb at dictating the play for Liverpool from that position towards the tail end of last season. His ability to recycle the ball will be vital in the punishing heat and suffocating South American humidity.
But Henderson arguably has a more important role. Given the aforementioned issues with the climate, he’ll have to be measured and mature in his energetic bursts. If he goes off like a steam train and tires himself out, he could leave his skipper exposed against slick, sharp passers, of which the Italians have plenty.
Sterling Is Potentially England’s Key Man
The first seven men in the team essentially pick themselves. Where Hodgson has some big decisions to make is in how he decides to line England up from an attacking point of view. And if recent reports are to be believed, then Raheem Sterling could be line for a central role in a very literal sense.
The 19-year-old excelled playing off the centre-forward towards the back end of last season, and his blistering runs from deep could cause this ageing Italian defence a host of problems. But Sterling’s role would not be restricted to attacking forays if he was to start the game.
He’d be the man closest in proximity to Andre Pirlo, a player who despite his advancing years, continues to make this Italian team tick. Wayne Rooney was tasked with getting tight to Pirlo when the sides last met in Euro 2012, but the mercurial playmaker was far too wiley for the out-of-sorts Manchester United man.
Sterling’s work-rate improved a tremendous amount at Liverpool and it’s a job that Hodgson might have earmarked him to do, preferring Rooney to play in a roaming role from out wide. You’d have to say, after the way in which Pirlo bossed proceedings in the European Championships, either Sterling or Danny Welbeck—fitness permitting—look as they can do a much more astute job of hassling Pirlo.
What About Rooney?
There’s certainly nothing wrong with being tactically flexible, but if Hodgson is to play Rooney from a wide berth, you have to wonder how effective he would be in that position; he just isn’t suited to play that role.
You suspect there will be a certain degree of fluency about the three that line up behind Daniel Sturridge. Adam Lallana looks the most likely to join Rooney and Sterling in that triumvirate of attacking midfielders, and players of that calibre should be capable of interchanging with ease.
Of the trio, Rooney is the least capable of that. He is a player with indisputable ability, and when he operates as a second striker or an orthodox centre forward he remains a significant threat. But if Hodgson has a specific plan to halt Pirlo—which you imagine he does—unless Rooney plays as the point of the England attack—which he won’t—it’s difficult to see a place for him in this team.
Options From The Bench
In the searing Amazonian heat, players are going to tire quickly, so the substitutes bench needs to be rife with decent options. Luckily for England, Hodgson has plenty in reserve.
Most notably perhaps is Ross Barkley. The 20-year-old midfielder has been very impressive during his cameos in the warm-up games, and is a player that brings a refreshing attacking dimension to this England team. He is still admittedly raw, but he has the potential to cause major problems when running at tired legs late in the game.
Hodgson will also be able to call upon Jack Wilshere to add a little more composure to midfield, the versatile James Milner if he’s looking to sure up a flank and the prolific Rickie Lambert, if England require the dreaded “plan B”.
My England XI To Beat Italy
If England’s primary aim in this game is to be reactive and shut down Pirlo, then there is no natural place for Rooney in this side. Although the United man is a player that would have a big role to play in games against Uruguay—a team who leave sizeable gaps between the midfield and the back four—and a defensive minded Costa Rica team.
With lingering concerns over the fitness of Welbeck, I’d start Sterling off Sturridge, and task the teenager with sticking close to Pirlo when England lose possession, and bursting in behind the Italian regista when England win the ball back.
Lallana looks more suited to a role on the left-hand side, allowing him to float inside and create space for Baines and his forays forward. On the right-hand side I’d start Milner, who offers a threat going forward and would pride ample cover for the defensively suspect Johnson behind him.
What’s your opinion? Which England team would you select to defeat Italy in Manaus? Share your opinion in the comment section below.