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Exciting & promising young side

With Kane and Vardy on song, fitting in Rooney and Alli a happy problem for Hodgson but central defence may be team's weak link

LONDON • The days have gone since England manager Roy Hodgson set up his team in a rigid 4-4-2 structure with so little fluidity running through the side that former striker Gary Lineker questioned whether England were playing football "from the dark ages".

Four years into his reign, Hodgson's team can play in an adventurous 4-3-3 system or go for the midfield diamond that was so effective when they came from 0-2 behind to win 3-2 in Germany recently.

The team showed that night they can be intrepid travellers and there is certainly the potential for a young side - the new generation of English players - featuring Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Dele Alli to worry defences.

Finding the right position for Wayne Rooney is perhaps the biggest dilemma for Hodgson when Kane and Vardy finished last season as the Premier League's top scorers, managing the same number between them - 49 - as the entire Manchester United team put together.

Rooney started England's last warm-up game at the front tip of the diamond but that is the position where Alli does his best work.

  • B

  • June 12, midnight (S'pore time)

    Wales v Slovakia

  • June 12, 3am

    England v Russia

  • June 15, 9pm

    Russia v Slovakia

  • June 16, 9pm

    England v Wales

  • June 21, 3am

    Slovakia v England

  • June 21, 3am

    Russia v Wales

Hodgson is extremely loyal to Rooney - England's captain and record scorer - but there is no obvious solution if he wants to keep him in the team yet shoe-horn in the players who showed the best form last season.

As England prepare to fly to France today, many observers would like to see Alli placed at the tip of the diamond and Rooney on the bench. Hodgson vehemently disagreed.

"You're talking about the player who has played 111 games for England and scored 52 goals so perhaps his best position is anywhere on the field," the 68-year-old said.

"It's a good problem to have, shoe-horning in attacking players. For a long period of time, I don't know that I've had that amount of good attacking players, players to shoe-horn in, so you won't find me complaining about that."

England indeed still look strong in attack even if the Portugal game was a disappointment but they also have a slightly lopsided appearance when, defensively, they may be much more vulnerable.

Joe Hart is established as the first-choice goalkeeper but Hodgson must have concerns about his centre-backs.

Chris Smalling is vastly improved but can still be accident-prone. Gary Cahill has had an erratic season and John Stones, as back-up, is going into the tournament on the back of a personal slump.

On that basis, it is certainly perplexing that Hodgson has taken a calculated gamble by including only three centre-backs though Eric Dier can, if necessary, switch from midfield to go back in an emergency role.

Kyle Walker and Danny Rose are the favourites to take the full-back roles in a side that will have a distinct Tottenham Hotspur flavour, with as many as five players from White Hart Lane in the starting XI.

England will need to be wary of Wales, who although are appearing in their first major tournament finals since the 1958 World Cup, are seeking to cause an upset led by their talisman Gareth Bale.

"We're not going there just to make up the numbers. We want to win every game that we play, we want to win the group and give ourselves the best chance," he told a BBC Wales documentary.

In Group B, Russia's front men are going into the Euros in good form and Slovakia have shown that they too can pose a threat.

Hodgson's men may still be the favourites to top the group, but the key may ultimately lie with his formations, tactics and the ability to bring the best out of a young and talented England squad.

THE GUARDIAN, THE TIMES, LONDON


England

Having reached the Euro 2016 finals by winning all 10 qualifiers, England put the icing on the cake with an uplifting 3-2 away friendly win over Germany.

However, England have looked vulnerable in the centre of defence. Manager Roy Hodgson is taking the inexperienced John Stones and Chris Smalling, and veteran Gary Cahill to France, and mobile opposition attackers must be licking their lips in anticipation.

The coach is better served elsewhere, with the emergence of Dele Alli and Eric Dier adding panache and bite to a midfield where Wayne Rooney is likely to give the side experience and leadership.

Despite their defensive shortcomings, it would still be a monumental shock if England fail to advance from Group B, and should they top the standings to face a third-placed qualifier, they would also expect to reach the quarter-finals.

Fifa ranking: 11

Manager: Roy Hodgson

Squad - Goalkeepers: Joe Hart, Fraser Forster, Tom Heaton. Defenders: Ryan Bertrand, Gary Cahill, Nathaniel Clyne, Danny Rose, Chris Smalling, John Stones, Kyle Walker. Midfielders: Dele Alli, Ross Barkley, Eric Dier, Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana, James Milner, Jack Wilshere. Forwards: Harry Kane, Wayne Rooney, Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge, Jamie Vardy, Marcus Rashford.

Key player: Harry Kane. He has emerged as his country's most natural scorer since Alan Shearer and scooped the Premier League's Golden Boot this season with 25 goals, the first English striker to lead the charts for 16 years.

REUTERS


Russia

Russia travel to France with a line-up that has few world-class names but plenty of ambition and head coach Leonid Slutskiy sees qualifying from the group stage as the bare minimum to expect.

Though the USSR won the inaugural European Championship and were losing finalists on three other occasions, the only time Russia made it beyond the group stage was in 2008 when, under Guus Hiddink, they reached the semi-finals where they lost to Spain.

Russia's weak spot is a lack of pace in the centre of defence, with Sergei Ignashevich, who turns 37 during the summer and the 33-year-old Vasili Berezutski the first-choice pairing. The Euros are likely to be their last tournament at international level, with Russia looking to young players when they host the 2018 World Cup.

Fifa ranking: 29

Manager: Leonid Slutsky

Squad - Goalkeepers: Igor Akinfeev, Guilherme, Yuri Lodygin. Defenders: Igor Smolnikov, Sergei Ignashevich, Aleksei Berezutski, Roman Shishkin, Georgi Schennikov, Vasili Berezutski, Dmitri Kombarov, Dmitri Torbinsky, Roman Neustadter. Midfielders: Igor Denisov, Oleg Ivanov, Roman Shirokov, Pavel Mamaev, Alexander Samedov, Denis Glushakov, Oleg Shatov, Alexander Golovin. Forwards: Aleksandr Kokorin, Artyom Dzyuba, Fyodor Smolov

Key player: Artyom Dzyuba. Coach Leonid Slutsky has transformed the forward from an international outcast to the spearhead of Russia's Euro 2016 campaign. He scored eight goals as the side booked their place in the Euros. For someone so tall, at 1.96 metres, he has excellent technical ability and is a fine finisher

REUTERS


Slovakia

If Slovakia start the European Championship finals the way they did the qualifiers, the rest of Group B had better beware.

Although Slovakia have sometimes struggled to score, failing to find the net for three successive games midway through their qualifying campaign, they are not reliant on one source of goals, with nine different scorers chipping in on the road to France.

If the team can get their attack firing, they may fancy their chances in their second game against a Russian side who conceded four goals to France in a recent friendly.

Slovakia are capable of a surprise, having knocked out Italy at the group stage in the 2010 World Cup - their only major tournament in the past quarter-century.

Fifa ranking: 24

Manager: Jan Kozak

Squad - Goalkeepers: Matu Kozacik, Jan Mucha, Jan Novota. Defenders: Martin Skrtel, Jan Durica, Toma Hubocan, Kornel Salata, Dusan Svento, Norbert Gyomber, Peter Pekarik, Milan Skriniar. Midfielders: Marek Hamsik, Stanislav Sestak, Juraj Kucka, Viktor Pecovsky, Miroslav Stoch, Vladimir Weiss, Robert Mak, Ondrej Duda, Patrik Hrosovsky, Jan Gregus. Forwards: Adam Nemec, Michal Duris.

Key player: Marek Hamsik. Slovakia's top scorer with five goals in a lop-sided qualifying campaign which began with six straight wins, including one over Spain. The Napoli captain's control has improved and his forceful runs from midfield will be a feature of Slovakia's attacks in France.

REUTERS


Wales

On paper, and according to the Fifa rankings, Wales have a real chance of emerging out of Group B in their first major tournament since the 1958 World Cup.

Coach Chris Coleman knows that, in Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, he has two fabulously gifted players. Coleman's achievement has been to build around them a team of less-gifted, supporting players.

Most apprehension surrounds Wales' defence despite a superb qualifying record in which they conceded just four goals in losing only once.

Captain Ashley Williams deserved much of the credit for that record but the powerful centre-half showed signs of struggling for his club Swansea at the end of the Premier League season and may find the pace and mobility of top-class international football a challenge.

Fifa ranking: 26

Manager: Chris Coleman

Squad - Goalkeepers: Wayne Hennessey, Danny Ward, Owain Fon Williams. Defenders: Ashley Richards, Ben Davies, Chris Gunter, James Collins, James Chester, Ashley Williams, Neil Taylor. Midfielders: Joe Allen, David Edwards, Joe Ledley, Aaron Ramsey, David Vaughan, Jonathan Williams, Andy King, George Williams. Forwards: Hal Robson- Kanu, David Cotterill, Simon Church, Gareth Bale, Sam Vokes.

Key player: Gareth Bale. He dragged Wales to their first major tournament since 1958 by scoring seven and setting up two of their 11 goals in qualifying. He has also notched up 19 league goals this La Liga season, his best tally so far. Bale has overtaken Gary Lineker as the top-scoring Briton to have played in Spain.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2016, with the headline 'Exciting & promising young side'. Print Edition | Subscribe