England vs. Italy: Key Selection Decisions for Roy Hodgson
England's preparations are almost over. Their opening group game with Italy in Manaus is upon us.
It's likely by now Roy Hodgson will have finalised his starting XI, but he will have toiled over a number of issues—close calls left until the last minute to give himself maximum opportunity to arrive at the right decision.
Selection and tactical dilemmas are normal for a manager, and here are a few that will have troubled Hodgson in recent days.
1. Wayne Rooney or No Wayne Rooney?
The biggest conundrum facing Hodgson is whether or not to select Wayne Rooney, a player whose position in the team has come under increasing scrutiny in recent weeks after some poor showings in England's friendly matches.
It may seem logical to drop a forward who looks short of confidence and ideas, with a host of young, exciting stars ready to play. Ross Barkley, who looks capable of having a fine career, has impressed in his cameo appearances for England, showing invention and quality whenever he's on the ball.
However, Rooney is England's only true world-class player, one capable of producing moments of pure magic and conjuring a goal from seemingly nothing.
Hodgson will have toiled over this one, but Rooney will surely start.
2. No Place for Frank Lampard
Frank Lampard has had a distinguished career, proving himself as one of the finest goalscoring central-midfielders in Europe during his 13-year stay at Chelsea. Even last season, at 35, he still produced some excellent moments, which is why, with all of his experience, Hodgson was probably right to name him in the squad.
It's clear, though, in Hodgson's 4-2-3-1 system, Jordan Henderson is much better suited to playing alongside Steven Gerrard in the deep-lying midfield role. He has better defensive attributes than Lampard and is more in tune with his Liverpool teammate.
Lampard will be used as a substitute late in games, providing an experienced head to close matches out, but it's unlikely he'll start too many.
3. Leighton Baines or Luke Shaw?
Luke Shaw has emerged as one of the finest young prospects in the Premier League over the last two seasons. His form for Southampton, where he's encouraged to attack, has been superb, and he fully deserves his place in England's 23-man World Cup squad.
Shaw, though, has given Hodgson a headache and provides England with excellent cover.
4. Who Should Partner Gary Cahill?
England's decline at centre-back has been swift and staggering. They once could have chosen from Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Sol Campbell, Ledley King, Jonathan Woodgate and Jamie Carragher, but now, they have a small pool of centre-halves who lack the ability of their predecessors.
An embarrassment of riches has been reduced to a small pool of decent players.
Of the current crop, Gary Cahill is the standout defender; his form at Chelsea this season has been excellent, his place in England's starting XI now secure. However, who plays alongside him is still far from certain.
Phil Jagielka appears to be in pole position to partner Cahill, but having missed 11 of Everton's last 13 league matches at the end of last season, he is still feeling his way back to form and fitness.
Manchester United pair Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are Hodgson's alternatives, but neither impressed in the recent friendly with Ecuador, leaving Jagielka as the most likely starter vs. Italy.
5. Man-Marker on Andrea Pirlo?
The last time England played Italy at a major tournament—the quarter-finals at Euro 2012—Andrea Pirlo caused them all sorts of problems, dictating the tempo of the game and creating the Italians' best moments with his passing. Will Hodgson decide to pay close attention to him this time, employing a man-marker to minimise his influence?
Paul Scholes said in a recent Paddy Power blog he felt Pirlo was in need of special treatment, a view shared by many observers fearful of the devastating impact the Italian could have.
Whether or not Hodgson feels Pirlo, who is now 35 and someway past his best, needs a man-to-man marker remains one of the most intriguing debates leading into the game.