It was all going so smoothly...too smoothly, if anything.
Leading up to the week of Roy Hodgson’s squad announcement, England’s preparation for UEFA Euro 2016 could hardly have been any better.
Ten wins from 10 in the qualification group—the only nation to do so—a remarkable 3-2 comeback victory in Berlin against Germany and a subtle inference that Wayne Rooney may not start at the tournament itself had buoyed the public’s spirit and heightened optimism heading into May.
But then disaster struck. As is often the way just before a major international tournament—and is often the way for most nations set to participate—a key player has been beset by injury, throwing the manager’s plans into disarray.
It may seem like an overstatement to some, but it is quite accurate to say Danny Welbeck’s knee injury, set to rule him out for nine months, could reshape everything Hodgson does this summer.
Hodgson has shown little loyalty to players during his time in charge of England, always willing to freshen up the squad and change the XI. Players who featured heavily early in his tenure such as Leighton Baines and Andros Townsend have played no part lately, with better, fitter and more in-form options usually rising to the fore.
But the former Fulham boss does have two “lieutenants,” if you will, and they take the form of two Arsenal players. Welbeck is a man he will always rely on, and to a slightly lesser extent, Jack Wilshere will be worked into any team where possible. The fact that one is now definitely out and the other is hardly match sharp will be of great worry to the national staff.
It had become clear over the course of the qualifiers and latest friendlies that the 4-3-3 formation would be England’s starting shape, and that the team would morph into a 4-4-2 diamond if a) they fall behind, or b) they couldn’t crack the shell of the opposition. That pattern became pretty set, with only a handful of instances in which England began with the diamond (Switzerland away, for example).
England’s genuine lack of wide options was always a threat to this plan, but in Welbeck and Raheem Sterling, Hodgson will have rightly felt he had two starting-calibre players who could carry out the role.
Specifically, Welbeck’s performances from the left of England’s 4-3-3 were one of the best parts of the qualifying campaign—not only because he attacks and links well, but because he’s willing to track back and defend, too.
This may be a “new dawn” for England amid the bringing through of numerous young talents and the adoption of more free-flowing, possession-based football, but to play for Hodgson you have to work.
It’s particularly hard to find wide players with the thirst to track runners all the way back and, in Welbeck, the England manager had one of the most dependable in Europe.
Without him, the flanks become an automatic weakness. Sterling could well switch over to the left (his favourite position, in fact), but there’s still a hole on the opposite side.
It could be a lifeline for Wayne Rooney, who, in the face of Harry Kane’s stunning escapades this season, has seen his role evaporate, but it has also necessitated the call-up of Townsend.
But it could also mean Hodgson migrates to a diamond full-time, and it will be interesting to see how he tries to cover up the loss of Welbeck in his precious, valuable pre-tournament friendlies.
England look strong using the system, and it accentuates plenty of players’ strengths, but the last two years have taught us Hodgson views it as a Plan B, not a Plan A.
Plan B, though, may well have to become Plan A, and it could open up Rooney’s spot in the side as a central striker in a two. He and Kane have clocked few minutes together as a pair, so it would be something of a stab into the unknown, but it’s not as if the rest of side is settled, is it? We don’t know for sure who will play left-back, centre-back, right-back or central midfield either; the only constant appears to be Joe Hart, it seems.
Kane and Rooney together is, on paper, a very good pair; they’re both adept at creating space, and they’re both ostensibly intelligent footballers.
There’s also the experience of Rooney to factor in as, as narrative-defying as Kane’s rise has been over the last two seasons, there may well come a time during the tournament when his international inexperience comes to the fore.
But then there's also the allure of Jamie Vardy. He and Kane form what is arguably the perfect pair—one to drop in and create, the other to run in behind incessantly, creating space and providing a threat—and the Leicester City man's case to start at the tournament is incredibly tough to ignore.
Just behind is a narrow midfield four, with plenty of positions up for grabs due to injuries. Wilshere has played a bit of football toward the end of the campaign and could now come in for a starting role (at least he’ll be fresh?), while Eric Dier’s strong season has him in contention, too.
Dele Alli is seemingly a shoo-in, while Jordan Henderson’s injury opens the door for plenty of players, including the oft-forgotten Fabian Delph.
At one stage it seemed like the No. 10 position belonged almost solely to Ross Barkley—he was in good form for Everton several months ago and was the man subbed on when England switched to the diamond against Germany in Berlin—but now another candidate rises to the fore.
Adam Lallana’s superb late-season performances for Liverpool have not gone unnoticed, and it could be he who gets the chance to win the spot first up.
Lallana is the Cruyff-turn master and a far more delicate player between the lines than Barkley. He’s shown an ability to press, harass and create chances via turnovers for Jurgen Klopp, and provided his fitness is managed right, he could be an underrated weapon for England heading into the finals.
In this sense, Lallana and Sterling as a wing combination could work in the original 4-3-3, but with Welbeck down and trusted lieutenants lacking on the pitch, Hodgson may well prefer to squeeze Rooney in instead.
If that’s the case, better to play him as a striker in a pair in a 4-4-2 diamond (or just behind as the No. 10, Hodgson may feel) than stick him on the wing. While there is evidence that can work (see: England’s victory over France at Wembley late last year), there is also plenty of evidence it does not.
When you lose one of your hardest-working, dynamic and tactically versatile players ahead of a tournament, this is what ensues: headaches, dilemmas and conundrums; managers will weigh up every potential fix, asking what happens if they move X here, Y there, or switch to system Z.
Hodgson has a big decision to make ahead of the first tournament game against Russia on June 11. Can he trust another member of the squad to be his Welbeck, or will he change shape altogether?