A case for the defence: England rearguard also deserves recognition
With all the clamour surrounding skipper Wayne Rooney’s record-equalling exploits and Harry Kane’s goal drought, England could be forgiven for thinking the Three Lions defenders were mere passengers in this Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.
The defence should be given their due for securing early qualification as much as Roy Hodgson’s lauded hitmen, however. This formidable Three Lions backline, 33/20 with Coral to help England win to nil against Switzerland, is evidently not just along for the ride.
England are unbeaten across all competitions since their wretched 2014 World Cup group stage exit without a win, keeping seven clean sheets from 11 and conceding just three in Euro qualifiers.
So, clearly a determined defence is just as much at the heart of this English ascent to the top of Pool E as an in-form attack. Yet curiously, in all matches since bowing out of Brazil, the Three Lions have fielded the same back four only twice.
How solid then, could Hodgson’s rearguard, 23/20 to keep another clean sheet against Switzerland, prove with a little consistency?
World Cup centre half starters Tim Cahill and Phil Jagielka have often looked slow and cumbersome when together, but this pairing has appeared in just three outings since the South American shambles, which bodes well for when England cross the channel. The reliable veterans still have a part to play, though, just perhaps not together.
It is Chris Smalling who has emerged as the most genuine contender for a regular berth, forcing himself into the picture with dominant and powerful performances for Manchester United during troubled times. His exploits at Old Trafford, then, have not gone unnoticed, as the Red Devil has featured in Hodgson’s rearguard in four of the past six fixtures.
If Smalling continues to eat the Premier League’s best for breakfast, it would be a huge surprise, injuries-barring, not to see the much-matured defender as main marshal in summer in front of Joe Hart.
Who could be the right partner to suit Smalling? Cahill, Jagielka and out-of-action Phil Jones have all been tested. As vice-captain, Cahill should get the nod, though Chelsea’s calamitous showings this season could change all that. Main competitor Jagielka is also toiling in younger peer John Stones’s shadow at Everton, however.
Stones continues to be blooded slowly but surely, and though his technique can give England another dimension, the youngster’s inexperience will likely see him overlooked. Hodgson, fairly or unfairly, seemingly favours loyalty to regulars rather than flavours of the month.
As for the full back berths, Nathaniel Clyne, perhaps more due to playing regularly than any top-draw outings for England, appears to have won the battle for right defensive flank, ahead of Jack-of-all-trades Jones and Calum Chambers.
Left back, though, appears wide open, as Arsenal back-up Kieran Gibbs surprisingly claims the most post-World Cup starts. Ryan Bertrand has also had a chance but, realistically the duel to be first pick should be down to Leighton Baines and Luke Shaw.
After an injury-plagued season, Southampton graduate Shaw is back, with swashbuckling performances for Man Utd and a defensive stability which belies his young age.
More experienced Baines is ahead on attacking impetus, but can leave gaps, while Shaw has hinted at great development going forward and, should his progress continue, Hodgson will have a selection headache. There is also Aaron Cresswell to consider, criminally overlooked while at West Ham United.
So, for once, the Three Lions chief could have an impressive backbone to take to France, he just has to select the right pieces.