Roy Hodgson's men have reasons to be optimistic but as always with England, there are also a number of concerns.
Roy Hodgson’s England were the only team to win all 10 games in qualifying for Euro 2016 and, although they were only really tested by closest challengers Switzerland, there is optimism about their chances. They have the talent to go a long way – but there is also an awareness that things could go very wrong, very quickly, as in Brazil two years ago.
The mood is best summed up by the reaction to two recent friendlies.
A 3-2 victory over world champions Germany in Berlin was celebrated as a sign of England’s new potency; four days later, the reality check of a Wembley defeat by an experimental Holland side brought expectations back to more manageable levels.
Inevitably, the same old weaknesses could come back to haunt England. There are still defensive frailties and a lack of comfort on the ball – problems that are only exposed in a competitive environment against the very best opposition. Meanwhile, injuries and tiredness, thanks to the pace and intensity of the Premier League programme, will only be highlighted to the full when England enter tournament arenas in June. But for all the reasons to be fearful, there are also plenty of reasons to be cheerful.
Hodgson has packed his side with young, pacy, uninhibited players. Crucially, he has not been afraid to pick those who are in-form: Jamie Vardy from champions Leicester City; Harry Kane, Eric Dier and Dele Alli from their closest challengers Tottenham Hotspur; Marcus Rashford from FA Cup winners Manchester United.
Most Premier League clubs have been slow to promote young talent from within their ranks, but Hodgson has benefitted from the progressive policies of Mauricio Pochettino at Spurs, where Alli has been the revelation of the season, less than a year after playing for MK Dons in the third tier of English football. Kane, too, has continued on his upward trajectory, while Dier, converted to a midfielder from a defender by Pochettino, looks set to solve one of England’s traditional problems. The midfield holding role is arguably the most important position in the international game, but England have struggled to find players comfortable performing such a selfless function.
Hodgson has gained a reputation as a conservative coach. It is a notion that he disputes, and one not borne out by recent selections.
The likes of Kane, Raheem Sterling, Rashford and Daniel Sturridge give the manager plenty of energetic, pacy options and will allow England to play on the counter-attack.
The big question ahead of the finals is how captain Wayne Rooney fits into Hodgson’s template. Rooney was the key man in qualifying, during which he became England’s all-time record goalscorer, but he missed the March friendlies through injury. The form of Kane and Vardy has presented Hodgson with a problem that can be solved only by leaving one of his strikers on the bench.
Attack may be England’s best form of defence, given the obvious weaknesses at the back. One of the centre-backs, John Stones, plays for mid-table Everton, who had the fifth-worst defensive record in the Premier League. Gary Cahill has been in and out of the starting XI at Chelsea, while team-mate John Terry refuses to go back on his international retirement.
Aside from Rooney’s recent injuries, there are concerns over others. Jordan Henderson has been picked but has played little football since picking up a knee injury twoards the end of the season, while Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere has barely kicked a ball since recovering from a fractured fibula.
Overall, the mood is one of cautious optimism. England are in the second tier of countries below France, Spain and Germany. Reaching the quarter-finals is to be expected; anything further would constitute a success.
The role of captain Wayne Rooney is set to dominate discussion of England’s tactical set-up ahead of Euro 2016.
The Manchester United forward played a central role in qualifying, but in recent months has appeared increasingly marginal in Roy Hodgson’s tactical template.
The manager has been keen to promote young, quick, in-form players – Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy, Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Daniel Sturridge – in a counter-attacking formation. How to incorporate Rooney into that formation is the big challenge.
Rooney played a central attacking role in the 4-3-3 formation that was favoured in most of the qualifiers. That is likely to be Hodgson’s default set-up in France, especially as Eric Dier has emerged in the holding-midfield role. Dier almost becomes a third centre-back, allowing the full-backs to join midfield. The 4-3-3 can provide a base for counter-attacking but also enables more midfield control.
Kane was mostly used as a substitute in qualifying but, given his excellent club form, Hodgson must surely find him a place in the starting line-up – either in place of Rooney, or alongside him, with the older man playing wide on the right as he has done so effectively in the past.
The midfield looks set to feature Dier in the holding role, with an attacking outlook having Alli and a fit-again Jack Wilshere in front – as against France in the November friendly, when Alli and Ross Barkley played ahead of a defensive midfielder.
Age 68 (09.08.47)
The son of a Croydon bus driver has been in charge of England since May 2012. He remains English football’s most successful coach in European terms, having won league titles in Sweden and Denmark, and steered Switzerland to the 1994 World Cup. He has also been national coach of UAE and Finland, as well as a director of football at Internazionale.
Multilingual and a lover of literature, he took unfancied Fulham to the 2010 Europa League Final before time at Liverpool and West Brom.
By Gavin Hamilton
Goalkeepers: Joe Hart (Manchester City), Fraser Forster (Southampton), Tom Heaton (Burnley).
Defenders: Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Chris Smalling (Manchester United), John Stones (Everton), Kyle Walker (Tottenham Hotspur), Ryan Bertrand (Southampton), Danny Rose (Tottenham Hotspur), Nathaniel Clyne (Liverpool).
Midfielders: Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspur), Ross Barkley (Everton), Eric Dier (Tottenham Hotspur), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Adam Lallana (Liverpool), James Milner (Liverpool), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), Jack Wilshere (Arsenal).
Strikers: Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur), Jamie Vardy (Leicester City), Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool), Marcus Rashford (Manchester United).