Connect in the back of the net

A name that was missing from England’s provisional Euro 2016 squad on Monday morning will give a stark warning to a name that was included. Theo Walcott used Twitter to express his “disappointment” over being left out but it is that emotion that is becoming synonymous with a career that began with his surprise call up to Sven Goran Eriksson’s World Cup squad when aged 17 back in 2006.

Hodgson’s Eriksson moment here has come with Marcus Rashford, Manchester United’s 18 year old striker who burst on to the scene with 7 goals in 16 games since he was turned to in desperation before the Europa League second leg against FC Midtjylland.

Rashford has shown enough in the early days of his United career to suggest he will be one for the future and that surely lies behind Hodgson’s thinking with three friendlies allowing the teenager to bed-in before the 26-man squad is trimmed to 23 before the flight to France.


Rashford inclusion a surprise and must be handled delicately

The overhanging presence of Walcott, who has scored only five goals in the eight years since he became England’s youngest hat-trick scorer away in Croatia, will remind Hodgson that Rashford needs to be handled with trepidation given easily how heightened expectation and demand has torn into the self-belief of the Arsenal striker in the decade since he was thrust into the spotlight.

One hopes that the United striker is cut loose to spend his summer watching his country play on the television and not from the bench from where his early international career will be under immediate scrutiny and anticipation.

It is expected Rashford will be on work experience given he will certainly not get ahead of Harry Kane or Jamie Vardy, scorers of 47 goals combined this season, the nation’s record goal-scorer and captain Wayne Rooney, or Daniel Sturridge, the reliable finisher whose familiarity to Hodgson secures his place despite an injury-disrupted past two years with Liverpool.

If the pressure is not given an invitation to exert itself and the hype not intensified from Rashford knocking one of those “off their perch”, as Hodgson has challenged, then working with that group of strikers presents a valuable learning curve for the emerging forward.

If Rashford is cut out as expected then it will perhaps be Fabian Delph, a Hodgson favourite though coming off the back of an underwhelming first season with Manchester City, and Andros Townsend joining him.


Townsend and Sterling: Two men who’ve struggled for form

Townsend is another one to whom Hodgson remains loyal but has played just 17 minutes for England since he last started, in the 2-3 win over Slovenia in June.

A bright end to the season with relegated Newcastle has rejuvenated his standing but given Hodgson favours a narrow, flexible midfield with full-backs providing the width, Townsend looks vulnerable despite offering the electric pace and directness that troubled Montenegro and Poland in qualifying for the last World Cup and then Italy in a friendly last March.

Raheem Sterling provides his main competition for a wing spot but having been a consistent feature of Hodgson’s squads since going to Brazil as the next great hope two years ago, he may find his place is not entirely certain after struggling for form at Manchester City since his £49 million move last summer.

Sterling has not started a game since injury ended his Manchester derby back in March and it may take some convincing he is still the buccaneering free-spirit that earned him 20 caps before he turned 21.

Both Townsend and Sterling were missing from the friendly win over Germany and Berlin and it is how well Dele Alli, Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson worked in midfield that night that presents the case against the inclusion of out-and-out wingers.

Danny Welbeck’s athleticism will be a glaring absence on the flanks so it may be that Hodgson looks to James Milner and Vardy, both willing runners adept to their task off the ball as well as on it, to play either side of a central striker, most likely Kane.


The midfield dilemma: Intense-pressing game? Wilshere? No Noble?

Or Hodgson may use the intense pressing-game that has been instilled in Henderson and Milner, or even Lallana, by Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool to operate either side of a Spurs-led midfield spine of Alli and Eric Dier in support of a 2-striker attack. Or Hodgson may use a club combination of Alli-Dier or Henderson-Milner in midfield with Rooney behind the striker; there are many options in a squad that offers great tactical flexibility.

In reserve, one hopes Ross Barkley can be persuaded to shake off the sluggish form that his marred his finish to the season with Everton as he still remains a brilliantly creative option, able to pick incisive passes in the final third, while Danny Drinkwater has produced an excellent season at Leicester and impressed enough in the friendly defeat to the Netherlands to show he can be a reliable deputy to Dier.

Jack Wilshere meanwhile is offered the chance to prove his fitness after a broken leg suffered on the eve of the season limited him to just one start this season, on the final day against Aston Villa. The 24 year old, when fit, is still arguably England’s most gifted midfielder, able to carry the ball and keep possession moving and it is these traits that are so appealing to Hodgson who has capped the Arsenal 23 times since taking charge in 2012 and started whenever available, despite the injuries.

The likes of Mark Noble, and maybe Andy Carroll, can be right to question why they haven’t been selected but it is the inclusion of Wilshere and Delph, players accustomed to the manager’s methods and the various aspects of the set-up that form the counter-argument.

Noble may have inexplicably never been given a chance to grow familiar to Hodgson’s England team but that is an argument for another time; here Hodgson has just a month to get his ideas across and it is understandably preferential to be working with players- the learning Rashford aside- previously immersed into this environment.

Overall it is a positive squad that looks to the present but keeps the future firmly in mind. The average age is only 24.8, with no outfield players over the age of 30, but the youngsters, already embedded in the England team, blend an experience of previously working with Hodgson and of seasons competing at the higher end of the Premier League.


Defence: An area of concern

There will be some concern of how threadbare England look at centre-half with only John Stones, Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill flying out and arguments saying Dier is a viable cover option looking weak considering he has played there just once for Spurs this term.

It is an area that Germany and the Netherlands exposed back in March and Hodgson will have to tighten them up, with a focus on eradicating the lapses from Stones’s game, or risk being punished in the knockout stages, or even earlier.

But this is certainly not a squad to which you can attach the “conservative” tag that irked the manager back in March. It is one for imposing themselves on the ball, for prioritising possession and winning the midfield battle with heavy, intense pressing.

If England can get that right they may have a successful tournament but Hodgson will know it isn’t that easy, regardless of who he picks.


Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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