England: optimism returns

england celebrate

Germany 2-3 England – www.mirror.co.uk

Two months ago, The Football Lab wrote an article on why this is the best top flight season ever. The reasons were, mainly, that the so-called smaller clubs had greater spending power and were therefore catching up with England’s elite, creating a level-playing field. Look a little deeper, however and there is another reason to enjoy this campaign.

Jamie Vardy has broken a Premier League goalscoring record. Danny Drinkwater has played almost every game for a team five points clear at the top of the league. Harry Kane is the division’s top scorer. Dele Alli has gone from playing League One football to being one of the most dynamic midfielders in England. Eric Dier, a right-back by trade, now looks to be a solution to England’s long-held defensive midfield problems. Chris Smalling has helped his side keep 21 clean sheets in all competitions while Nathaniel Clyne and Ross Barkley have had impressive seasons on Merseyside. What do those players have in common? They are all English.

What is curious, yet understandable in equal measure, is that none of the aforementioned players are established ‘stars’ in our national side. Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, John Terry and Ashley Cole, part of the wrongfully coined ‘golden generation’, have all been treated with the same awe as famous singers or actors. How many of the current England team could you have said that about now, or at least 12 months ago? There is a case to say none of them.

It would be unfair to say that no player who has played for England in the preceding decade has ever cared for their country, yet some of them did not have to work extra hard for a place. If Gerrard had a bad three months before a major tournament, he would still play. If Rooney went on a goal drought, he would still play. These players were seen as indispensable to the team. They did not have to be consistently improving to retain their place in the team. By contrast, England now has no proven performers who can get into the team on status alone – that is what strengthens us.

Against Germany on Saturday night, we saw England team that played with spirit, energy and more than a sprinkling of quality. When Vardy came on to play up front with Kane, the two were exceptional together. They pressed and harried relentlessly, as they have done so well for their high-flying clubs. This blog argues that they should start up front together at the Euros.

In the past, England have been guilty of trying too hard to play teams like Spain at their own game. We have tried to play out from the back, to dominate the midfield and this has come at the expense of a direct attacking threat. Rather than try to emulate another team, we should play to our own strengths, which is speed, unity and directness. With two strikers on the pitch, the team will always have an outlet that allows us to transform defence into attack.

Two striker systems require a narrow midfield, which suits the players already available. England are not blessed with the best wingers but have a lot of hardworking midfielders who would thrive in a compact shape. A trio of Alli, Barkley and Drinkwater in front of Dier would give England the tenacity needed out of possession and a willingness to make forward runs at the right time. This should give us the right protection for the defence and stop opposing teams play through the middle.

The number one target for England should be, not necessarily to win the Euros, but to establish itself as a force in European football. In the years that succeeded the disastrous 2010 World Cup, expectations lowered and apathy set in. While there is a responsibility on fans to get behind their team in testing times, there is also a responsibility on the team to give their fans something to get behind and we now have that. A renewed sense of footballing patriotism shall engulf our nation – for the next three months, at least.