Roy Hodgson’s England face two hugely important World Cup qualifiers on Friday and Tuesday that could go a long way to deciding whether the Three Lions take their place as one of the 32 competing nations at next summer’s finals in Brazil.
At present, Hodgson’s side sit in second place in Group H, trailing surprise leaders Montenegro by just two points, although with key home and away ties to come against the Balkan nation, starting on Tuesday in Podgorica.
Only the group winners and the best-ranked second-placed side are assured of automatic qualification for the 20th edition of the World Cup in 2014, while the other eight runners-up face the lottery of a two-legged playoff next November. This means England can ill afford any slip-ups between now and their final qualifier against third-placed Poland at Wembley in October.
So, we at Bleacher Report are examining just what Hodgson needs to get right between now and then if England are to make it to next summer’s global event.
As the well-known football phrase goes: “The table does not lie” and in this case, we are referring to World Cup qualifying Group H that sees England currently following in the tiny Balkan nation’s footsteps as we approach the halfway mark on the road to Rio.
The good news is that, at present, Hodgson and Co. have qualification within their own hands on the basis that they are still to play the group leaders home and away, but conversely the bad news is that a slip up in either of those two awkward-looking fixtures would make things start to look really bleak indeed.
Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere’s latest injury problem could not have come at a worse time for England’s manager, who has only had the luxury of selecting the 21-year-old in one match since he replaced Fabio Capello in the Three Lions dug-out last year.
Hodgson has made no secret about the fact that he wants to base his entire game plan around the twinkle-toed playmaker, and can you really blame him when you look at his other creative options in the centre of the field.
However, the good news (via ESPN) coming out of Arsenal on Tuesday was that Wilshere’s ankle injury was not related to the problem that recently kept him out of action for 17 months, with the player set to return to action for the North Londoners before the end of this month.
Now Hodgson must pray to the footballing gods that "Jack the Lad" is not on the treatment table when England play what are certain to be their decisive last four qualifiers next autumn.
Hodgson has used more central-defensive pairings since becoming England manager last May than I have had hot dinners, although in fairness to the Croydon-born coach this flip-flopping at the back has not been entirely of his own making.
However, in light of this week’s saga over Rio Ferdinand’s recall to the national setup, it's now time to identify once and for all just who his first-choice centre-backs are, and then stick with that pair all the way to Rio next June, as the constant switching of personnel at the back is doing England no favours whatsoever.
Hodgson has switched between his beloved, but antiquated, 4-4-2 formation and the more modern 4-3-3 variety that his predecessor Capello employed while in charge of the Three Lions, with varying degrees of success, and while it is wise to have the flexibility to be able to switch from one formation to another, often during a match, now is the time to decide which of the two works best for the team.
And the answer is go with the 4-3-3 that he used against five-time world champions Brazil in England’s most recent outing, a highly encouraging and more-boosting 2-1 win at Wembley.
According to England assistant coach Gary Neville: “The reality is there are good forwards, the likes of Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck, Rooney, Jermaine Defoe and Carroll.
“You could argue when you look at the teams around the world, there would be quite a lot of teams who would want to pinch one or two of those” (via the Sun)
Well, if the one-time United skipper is referring to the likes of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as the “teams around the world who would want to pinch” the likes of Andy Carroll et al, then he may have a point.
Otherwise, the reality is that England are desperately short of options up front and as a result it is absolutely crucial that Hodgson goes with the right blend in attack either side of their only truly world-class operator, Wayne Rooney.
And, rather than Carroll, Sturridge or Defoe, those two forwards must be Welbeck on the left of a front three and Arsenal flyer Theo Walcott on the right-hand side.
Any successful international team needs an experienced, savvy, mobile and technically accomplished defensive midfield player to patrol in front of the back four, putting out fires in the process, as without such a figure you really will find it hard to stop world-class opponents from hurting you defensively.
Now, Hodgson used Tottenham’s Scott Parker in this role at last summer’s European Championship finals in Poland and Ukraine, although more through other player’s absences than his own total trust of the terrier’s abilities in that position.
And, while the veteran did not let his manager down in any way, shape or form, at 32 years of age, however, it would be a huge mistake to return to Parker now that the Spurs man has finally recovered from his longstanding Achilles injury.
No, Hodgson must stick with his instincts at the start of World Cup qualifying campaign and continue to use the younger, fitter and more versatile Michael Carrick in that role for England’s remaining six qualifiers.
For this month’s two qualifiers away in San Marino and Montenegro, in the enforced injury-induced absence of Wilshere, Hodgson must be brave and relegate United’s Tom Cleverley to the substitutes’ bench and recall Chelsea’s veteran midfield player Frank Lampard for his 95th and 96th England caps to play alongside captain Steven Gerrard in the centre of the park.
The Red Devil has not disgraced himself at all in any of the internationals that he has featured in under Hodgson since the start of this season, and the 23-year-old is sure to be a mainstay of the Three Lions midfield for years to come.
However, for the here and now, which means not losing in Podgorica on Tuesday, it is experience at the very highest levels as opposed to youthful promise that will see Hodgson’s men over the line.
Hodgson needs to keep calm in the face of what is sure to be mounting pressure and inevitable press criticism between now and hopefully England’s decisive final qualifier at home to Poland on Oct 15, as now is most certainly not the time to start panicking.
The 65-year-old must stick with his own footballing principles, beliefs and philosophies, which after all have got him to the pinnacle of his managerial career. He must trust his instincts and keep things simple. Above all else, if ever in doubt between now and October, he must never take the defensive option, but instead always go for the attacking one.