Tonight sees England visit the city of Turin for a friendly match against Italy, less than a year after the two nations faced each other in the Brazilian rainforest city of Manaus at the World Cup. The Italians ran out 2-1 winners, in what was a sign of things to come for England in the group stage, and as they lock horns again it’s worth reflecting on the last nine months to see whether the Three Lions have improved since that defeat in June.
Experimental starting line-ups are expected from both squads tonight, with only Giorgio Chiellini likely to remain from the previous meeting for the Azzuri, so it won’t be the truest test of progress but there are more general factors that suggest Roy Hodgson’s men are moving in the right direction, even if it’s still not enough to beat Italy.
Hodgson started a back four of Glen Johnson, Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines in Manaus, and with a fully fit squad available the latter three would certainly still be in England’s strongest starting XI. Johnson, however, has fallen out of favour for both club and country after a generally poor World Cup showing, and Hodgson looks to have found a marked improvement at right back in Nathaniel Clyne.
The Southampton defender got a long overdue call-up to the squad in November and instantly made the position his own when given the opportunity. Johnson was able to provide a threat going forward but left much to be desired in his defensive play, whereas Clyne is as adept at both. His pace not only allows him to get forward quickly but also recover quickly back to his own half and make crucial interceptions.
Having genuinely quality on both sides is certainly an upgrade on last year at least, even if we’re still really yet to see the best of Leighton Baines in an England shirt. As for the central pairing, Cahill and Jagielka are good if not great, which is only an issue come the major tournaments. At least one of Chris Smalling, John Stones and Phil Jones will be expected to stake a claim for a starting berth soon, but none are quite ready yet.
The obvious difference in England’s midfield is that Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard have since retired from international football, which means there’s no longer either debate about how to incorporate both into the side or which one to select. Gerrard was certainly the preferred option during the latter stages of their England careers, and he started the Italy match last year but by the end of his time with the Three Lions the then-captain was playing in a deep midfield role alongside Jordan Henderson. The combination had worked well for Liverpool last season but it didn’t have the same effect for England and in the end it felt like Gerrard was becoming a hindrance, which is probably why he called time after the tournament.
The likes of Henderson and Jack Wilshere have impressed in the central positions since then, offering more to Hodgson’s style of play than twilight-Gerrard could, but as is evident by the selection of Phil Jones in holding midfield tonight there isn’t an obvious first choice line-up yet to build on. Younger players such as Fabian Delph and Ryan Mason have been recent additions to the squad, with the former impressing on his full debut, while Ross Barkley remains in the squad even if his club form this season has not come close to that of the last campaign. It certainly suggests a team ‘for the future’, even if it’s still unclear whether these players can make a real impact on the international stage, but at least it’s a squad moving forward rather than the almost regressive approach we saw last year from Hodgson with past heroes.
At the World Cup, England started against Italy with Daniel Sturridge furthest forward and a trio of Raheem Sterling, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck behind him. The quartet are very strong at international level and Welbeck’s impressive goalscoring form for his country continues but neither he, Sterling nor Sturridge are in the squad tonight due to injury. That’s where new boy Harry Kane comes in – the 21 year-old scored on his England debut on the weekend to cap a breakthrough twelve months or so for the Tottenham Hotspur striker, and if his club form this season is anything to go by then Hodgson will have strength in depth in the forward areas for what could be the first time under his management.
England went to the World Cup with Rickie Lambert as the striking option from the bench, and although his form justified a place at the time it also showed just how little competition was being offered beyond the starting forwards. While they have not all been called up yet, there are many positives to be taken from the likes of Charlie Austin, Danny Ings, Saido Berahino and Kane among the goals at top flight level this season, as they give Hodgson more than just target men to consider as real options. The issue of who starts when everyone is fit, both in wide areas and centrally, remains an issue for Hodgson, but rarely is that ever the case unfortunately. Theo Walcott at least starts tonight alongside Kane after a long injury lay-off and a good performance from him would give Hodgson yet more to think about.
It may not be indicated tonight, with a depleted squad and new players being tried out, but England are certainly more experienced for the better since their Italy defeat and the young players then have become regular fixtures in the side. They will certainly be more ready for the stronger footballing nations across the world, and the side in general has more goals in it. The jury is still out on the new midfield generation, as it is with the future centre backs, but there’s no reason for Roy Hodgson to not be positive with what he’s got.