The focus has been drawn to an intriguing opportunity for Danny Drinkwater in midfield, or the sudden flurry of forward candidates hoping to impress Roy Hodgson even with Wayne Rooney absent and Danny Welbeck still discomforted by a knee injury.
Yet, as the manager trotted out after his available 18 outfield players on the training pitch at St George’s Park, the principal doubt nagging away at him with five friendlies to go before a collision with Russia in Marseille will have centred on an area where England were once so well stocked.
It is at the heart of his defence where this team suddenly seems shorn of options. A quartet of centre-backs underwent their drills on Tuesday with a pair of combinations – Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling, then Phil Jagielka and John Stones – likely to be utilised in the games ahead against Germany and Holland. These fixtures will offer those candidates an opportunity to stake their claim but, where Jamie Vardy and Harry Kane have consistently illuminated the top flight with their prowess at the other end this season, those at the back have been made to look diminished too often.
These games must offer the management answers or, at the very least, a little reassurance. And to think centre-half used to be England’s position of strength. Not long ago Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, John Terry, Jamie Carragher, Ledley King and even Jonathan Woodgate would regularly compete for selection. Hodgson was confident enough in the options at his disposal to omit Ferdinand from his final squad for Euro 2012, his first tournament in charge, over concerns about the United player’s relationship with Terry and in the belief Joleon Lescott, who had just won a Premier League title with Manchester City, and Jagielka would compete capably for a place in the lineup. He could also lean on the experience of Ashley Cole and, to a lesser extent, Glen Johnson at full-back.
These days, with younger and greener performers on the left and right, the options in the middle feel comparatively meagre. Cahill is the national team’s vice-captain and, one assumes, first choice, though he has endured the flatlining of Chelsea’s campaign at times this season as much as anyone. His partnership with Terry had been split up by Kurt Zouma’s emergence and, when the French youngster’s knee injury opened a route back into the lineup, the captain succumbed to a hamstring problem. The back-line combination with Branislav Ivanovic felt temporary but, while the disruption serves as a mitigating circumstance, the brutal reality is Cahill’s club form would not normally merit immediate inclusion.
Yet he is not alone. Stones, so long considered the future of the national team at centre-half, has not been picked regularly by Roberto Martínez at Everton over recent months – he has started one Premier League game since 24 January – as the manager sought to offer the youngster some respite from the feverish scrutiny of his form. Hodgson is among those who has expressed concerns, albeit privately, over Stones’s innate desire to take risks in possession, a reflection of his self-confidence on the ball.
The manager said last week that he had discussed shifting the 21-year-old into defensive midfield in the autumn, and has regularly suggested publicly that Stones might be used at right-back. Another capable of filling in across the back division, Phil Jones, has not played since January, meaning England’s most in-form defenders appear to be Smalling – who has been a source of positivity at Manchester United this term – and, arguably, Jagielka, albeit the latter is part of a defence who have conceded 41 Premier League goals this term. Only five clubs have shipped more.
In the autumn the assumption had been that Smalling and Stones would end up as England’s preferred combination, though Hodgson has yet to experiment with that young pair together in the middle. Instead, Cahill and Smalling started in four of England’s 10 matches last calendar year, to leave Jagielka anticipating that as the manager’s likeliest selection. “It looks like you have probably got Nathaniel Clyne, Gaz, Chris and a left-back: that is probably the starting back four with Joe [Hart] in goal,” said the Everton captain. “It is a case of waiting to see what happens between now and the end of the season.
“I have got to think I still have a chance. I am not going there to wash people’s boots and clean the kit: I am going to try and get a game, even if I don’t know where I stand exactly. Obviously, I missed the last trip but I will go there, keep my head down and see where it takes me. We will find out more in these two games, if not the three before the finals. Time will tell, but it’s important we put pressure on the people playing.”
The onus would appear to be on the 33-year-old and his club-mate to convince Hodgson they should be included, whether they gain their opportunity against the reigning world champions or a Dutch team who have not even qualified for the summer jamboree. The depth may not be what it once was, but a chance has to be taken in the days ahead.
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