Close your eyes and imagine this. England manager Gareth Southgate has fallen ill just before the start of the FIFA World Cup. Instead of replacing him with another member of the coaching staff, the FA has opted to hire a 21-year-old American with no previous managerial experience to coach England to glory (aka the quarterfinals). Blissfully unburdened by the pessimism that is a result of repetitive English footballing heartbreaks, here is who I would select to start for the Three Lions.
Formation: 5-2-1-2. England need a formation that solidifies their weak areas (centre half, wide midfielders) and highlights their strengths (wing backs, forwards).
Goalkeeper: Nick Pope. Pope is coming off a spectacular year with Burnley where he only allowed 35 goals. More importantly, he committed 0 errors leading to a goal and kept more clean sheets than either of his two fellow keepers.
Wing backs: Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose. He’s not as pacy as you’d like a wing back to be, but Trips is an excellent crosser, and England’s attacks have often lacked quality service. On the other side, Rose is fast and physical, and if he manages to stay healthy he’ll be a headache for opponents. The wing backs are key to this formation, as they provide the width for the attacks.
Centre halves: Kyle Walker, John Stones, Gary Cahill. As tempting as it is to put Walker at wing back because of his sheer athleticism, he ends up slotting into the back three because he is a solid defender and I’m not quite confident enough in Harry Maguire to start him. He also has good chemistry with Stones since he played next to him all year at Manchester City.
Central midfield: Eric Dier, Jordan Henderson. Both these guys are tough and good passers. They are capable of doing two things necessary for this formation to work: linking play and breaking up an opponent’s rhythm. Especially against physical teams like Panama, their presence will be needed.
Attacking midfield: Raheem Sterling. England’s attack needs Sterling buzzing about the pitch. He’d have decent freedom to roam in this formation, taking on defenders or playing balls over the top.
Forwards: Jamie Vardy, Harry Kane. Vardy plays just ahead of Kane and right along the backline. His speed and ability to torch offsides traps has been well-documented the last few seasons, so he’ll be instructed to make runs in behind as much as possible. Those runs will drag defenders, leaving space for Kane and other attackers to receive the ball and operate in.
Bench: This strategy can be adapted easily with the talent England has on the bench. Marcus Rashford could come in and play either forward role, while Dele Alli or Jesse Lingard are both great options to come in and supply extra attacking potency. Harry Maguire and Phil Jones could fill in at the centre back spots. Ashley Young is a ready-made LWB and brings experience as well as loads of two-way ability. Fabian Delph can play in the midfield pivot as well.
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