With just a week to go until England kick off their World Cup campaign against the Italians, Roy Hodgson must surely have his all-important team selection in mind for that crucial opening clash. The game against Italy has been built up as the most important of England’s group games and it has been generally viewed as a game we must not lose in order to progress into the knock-out stages.
So how should we go about tackling this fixture? Whilst Hodgson’s cautious and defensive approach against the Italians in the Euro 2012 Quarter-Final drew criticism, the end result was 0-0 and that would be a positive result on this occasion. Whilst there were a few fortunate escapes during the 90 minutes and also extra time, our defence managed to keep the ball out of our net. Whilst it would be foolish to think that we can rely on simply holding on for a point again, we should take confidence from that previous encounter.
However, one major difference is that the aforementioned defence has changed drastically. The centre-back partnership two years ago was John Terry and Joleon Lescott, the left back was Ashley Cole and the right back was Glen Johnson. The latter being the only one of the back four with even a chance of playing in this game given that none of the other three are in the squad. The first choice back four pretty much picks itself, Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka have their places virtually guaranteed and the pair are beginning to form a decent partnership. In the absence of Ashley Cole, Leighton Baines is now the undisputed number one left back and Glen Johnson’s place at right back is equally safe in the absence of the injured Kyle Walker.
In the Euro 2012 Quarter-Final, England struggled to get out of their own half as Andrea Pirlo was giving his master class in dictating the game from his deep midfield role. Undoubtedly, Pirlo is still one of the best in the world at doing this so preventing him to pass the ball around freely is vital. In 2012 we didn’t really have this. From memory, Scott Parker started the game alongside Steven Gerrard. Now, we have a much improved Jordan Henderson who has formed a successful partnership with Gerrard in the Liverpool midfield. Henderson’s energy and work rate will be key and will be our best bet in stopping Pirlo which, for me, makes him an essential choice to start the game (alongside Gerrard).
The big dilemma I would have regarding the midfield would be whether to go with just those two or maybe go with a third, given that Italy have a tendency to do just that with Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio and Daniele De Rossi. In fact, the Italians have a wealth of options in the midfield with PSG’S highly rated pair of Thiago Motta and Marco Verratti also being selected in their final 23. The third midfielder that I would pick would therefore be either Jack Wilshere, who is returning to full fitness just in time and offers similar qualities to Henderson, or James Milner who isn’t the most spectacular player but has an abundance of big match experience. Alternatively, Milner could even start on the right as even if Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain makes it, he surely won’t be able to play a part in the opening game.
The left side looks to be a battle between Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana, both of which are amongst my favourite English players to watch at the moment. In this game, I’d go with Sterling ahead of Lallana purely because we will probably be looking to play a counter-attacking style and Sterling is obviously the quicker player and pace will be key for England to turn defence into attack quickly and take pressure off the defence.
As for the forward line, Wayne Rooney is undoubtedly our biggest asset and there will be a huge level of expectation on him to perform well and score goals at a World Cup at the third time of asking. Daniel Sturridge has had an outstanding season, having only been outscored in the Premier League by his strike partner Luis Suarez. However, if England were to go with only one up front to start the game against Italy, Wayne Rooney would have to be that man. Sturridge is purely a goal scorer whereas Rooney can offer much more, he can drop deeper, hold up the play better and bring teammates into play and as a lone striker, you can’t be a one-trick pony. Sturridge would need a partner. The other two games would be much better for him.
So having said all that, my starting line-up against Italy would be, in a 4-5-1 (4-3-2-1 when on the attack) formation:
Goalkeeper – Joe Hart
Left Back – Leighton Baines
Centre Back – Gary Cahill
Centre Back – Phil Jagielka
Right Back – Glen Johnson
Centre Midfield – Steven Gerrard
Centre Midfield – Jordan Henderson
Centre Midfield – Jack Wilshere
Left Wing – Raheem Sterling
Right Wing – James Milner
Striker – Wayne Rooney
That team, whilst having a solid spine and looking fairly defensive, has a good balance to it as we’d still have plenty of creative ability when we do manage to get into attacking positions. Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ross Barkley were very impressive against Ecuador the other night, the former would’ve probably got into my team for the same reason that I chose Sterling (offering a good outlet for counter attacks). However, despite Barkley’s good performance, he still wouldn’t have made it into my team for this game. He showed very promising signs and looked very positive and completely fearless on the ball but his qualities, along with Daniel Sturridge, wouldn’t be best suited to playing this opposition. Sturridge could come off the bench with about 15 or 20 minutes to go if the game was level or obviously if we were behind, as could Rickie Lambert. Another option off the bench would be the vastly experienced Frank Lampard who could come on for a few minutes to ensure we see the game through to the final whistle if we were holding onto a good result.
So that is how I would go about trying to get at least one point from the game against Italy. We’d have to start the game slightly defensively due to the fact that it’s going to a cagey game as it’s the opening game of the World Cup, but we’d have plenty of opportunities to break away with pace and give support for Rooney. I’d be very confident that, having chosen this line-up, we’d still be in the game deep into the second half and at that point we can decide whether we can afford risking bringing on a second striker and trying to steal it by the odd goal. Whilst I’m only an armchair manager, I really do think that is the best and only way to approach the game.