Originally, the conundrums were in attack, but then Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy happened. Now the only conundrum is whether nailed-on starter Wayne Rooney should, erm, start.
England beat Germany by three goals to two in Berlin in March, meaning that the Three Lions are now de facto world champions.
But because the team conceded two goals as a result of errors at the back, defence is now the problem.
This problem was exacerbated by the 2-1 defeat against the Netherlands at Wembley, but there is no Vardy or Kane to come to the rescue of the defence. There isn’t even a Danny Drinkwater.
Do England Have The Stones to Defend?
What the England defence do have are a couple of older heads who had to wait until John Terry’s and Rio Ferdinand’s respective international careers expired, because they were never quite good enough to dislodge them at the time, and John Stones, who really, really wants to be a midfielder – and not even a defensive one.
Stones is regularly described as a ball playing defender as if there has never been a ball playing defender before, and as if the other defenders in the team can’t play football.
There are two main parts to a ball playing defenders game: ball-playing, and defending.
Stones is only bothered about the first one. He likes playing with the ball but isn’t too concerned about the defensive aspect of the role, which means he isn’t much use in a defensive unit – at the moment.
On first breaking into the Everton side at the age of nineteen, the former Barnsley youth looked promising – to say the least. Assured and confident for his age, he was comfortable on the ball and responsible off it.
The comfort on the ball became his trademark, but this has now reached a point where the player wants to further enhance his trademark and nothing else.
The natural talent is still there – demonstrated by some of his passing in Everton’s recent clash with Manchester United – as is the massive potential, but the mindset needs a slight shift towards row Z, and some of the dawdling needs to be eradicated..
A New Role Model
In the shape of Phil Jagielka, Stones has the perfect role model. The pair could have become defensive partners at international as well as club level, if only the pupil had taken a little more notice of his teacher.
Jagielka himself is no slouch when it comes to the fabled ball-playing part of the game – something he brings with him from his time at Sheffield United he was a regular in midfield.
Since then he’s shifted further back to become one of the more reliable centre-backs in the English game, albeit in a league where reliable centre-backs aren’t commonplace.
Jagielka has also played on both sides of the defence – playing on the right when partnering Ramiro Funes Mori, and on the left when partnering Stones.
It’s for this reason – as well as the fact that he’s the second best goalkeeper at Everton – that Jagielka should be the first name on the England team-sheet. Who plays alongside him is a trickier question. It could yet be Stones.
Cahill the Contender – Smalling the Starter
Gary Cahill would have been the obvious choice on the back of Chelsea’s league title win last season, but in the 2015/16 season he’s been exposed during Chelsea’s woeful attempt to defend their crown.
Cahill hasn’t been Chelsea’s worst player by any means, but the performance of his club during the season has meant that he isn’t a nailed-on starter for his country.
The closest to a nailed-on starter England have in defence is Chris Smalling, which, given the Jagielka eulogies earlier in this text, suggests that England’s starting centre-backs should be Smalling and Jagielka.
The former Fulham and Maidstone United man has been one of Manchester United’s more eye-catching players in a fairly dull season, and his side boast the most clean-sheets in the Premier League.
A Sporting Chance
One late but unsurprising addition to the England set-up has been Tottenham’s midfield anchor-man Eric Dier.
Schooled as a centre-back playing seven-a-side football in Portugal, Dier has all the qualities to rack up a large amount of caps for England, and though he’s now playing the majority of his games in front of the back four, he could easily be part of it in the future.
For now, his role could be somewhere between the two. For Spurs he’ll drop between the centre-backs, taking the ball from Hugo Lloris to help instigate attacks.
He’s been compared to Spanish deep-lying-playmaker Xabi Alonso, but he also has the defensive qualities to go with the technique and vision he learnt on the continent as youth at Sporting CP.
The old-style centre-half is making a return thanks to some of the experimental formations used by Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich, and 22-year-old Dier could attract admiring glances from the world’s top clubs as they look for players to fill these roles which require versatility, tactical understanding, and technical ability.
Whatever terminology is decided upon by the soccer tacticologists, this sweeper-cum-midfielder role could also suit the aforementioned John Stones.
The graphics below show how the role would work in three different formations. The other players are suggestions for the other roles and are mainly for illustrative purposes only, except Aaron Cresswell who should definitely have had an England call-up by now.
International football should be about choosing the right horses for the right courses, or the players best suited to exploiting opposition weaknesses.
That said, the limited time which international managers get to work with their charges should mean that only two (though there are three above, one definitely won’t be used) simple but clear tactical strategies should be used, and it doesn’t take an FA board and committee meeting to work out what these should be.