It has seemingly been an eternity since England had a team that could mount a serious challenge in a major tournament. Big wins in easy qualifying groups results in England coasting through to a tournament with near enough maximum points and a naïve confidence. This is then met with an exit before things begin to get heavy. The quarter-finals have been the height of England’s success in both the World Cup and European Championship since the 1990 World Cup in Italy, in which they finished fourth, and the 1996 Euros, in which they reached the semi-final.
Hodgson’s Headache: Which England Strikers Miss Out on France 2016?
There have always been so many questions surrounding England’s World Cup campaign. In recent times they have revolved around whether Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard can play together in midfield and whether or not Wayne Rooney can finally realise his potential at a major tournament. This is no different for the 2016 European Championship in France. However, this time it is not a question of ‘can they?’; it is a question of ‘who will?’.
Roy Hodgson has had a number of headaches when it comes to major tournaments. The farce of a World Cup in 2014 saw England eliminated in the group stage without a win and the insipid performance in the 2012 quarter-final against Italy did not enhance Hodgson’s and England’s credentials. The England manager for the last two tournaments has led a somewhat charmed managerial life. Usually, two failed tournaments would result in the termination of a manager’s contract and the search for a new one. However, his tenure has been extended until at least the Euros next summer.
Hodgson’s time in charge has coincided with the emergence of a group of strikers with very promising talent. Which strikers Hodgson chooses to play is perhaps the most beneficial headache he has had as a manager, and England finally have them in abundance. Too many tournaments have come and gone with Wayne Rooney being the sole hope for scoring goals. England have taken the likes of Andy Carroll, Jermain Defoe, Peter Crouch and Emile Heskey to tournaments and, while all are good strikers in their own way, none are of the class of say, Luis Suárez, Zlatan Ibrahimović or Robert Lewandowski.
The best strikers in the world are all able to leave their marks on a game. Suárez did so when he scored twice as Uruguay beat England 2-1 in the 2014 World Cup, Ibrahimović scored all four goals including a scintillating bicycle kick as Sweden beat England 4-2, albeit in a friendly, while Lewandowski tore Real Madrid apart in the 2013 Champions League semi-final first leg, in which he scored four goals in a 4-1 win.
England’s strikers have all failed to impress at major tournaments. Rooney, in particular, has found it difficult with many questioning why he struggles so often at tournaments. This could be for a number of reasons, but it is quite likely due to an alarming lack of support in his favour. However, France 2016 could be different.
Jamie Vardy, Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck, Harry Kane and Theo Walcott will all be vying for a place on the plane to France. Along with the aforementioned players, Charlie Austin and Danny Ings have also shown promise, however, neither player has much of a chance with limited game time and the calibre of other available strikers meaning Ings and Austin are likely to be left behind.
So, assuming that Roy Hodgson will take four strikers, one of them being captain, Wayne Rooney, who will the other three seats on the plane go to?
The first candidate is Leicester’s Jamie Vardy. It has been a stunning turnaround for both club and player. The 2014/15 season ended in one of the Premier League’s greatest escapes, as Leicester recovered from picking up only two points from a possible 39 between game-weeks 6-18. Since then, both Leicester and Vardy have propelled themselves to the top of the table and the height of the goal-scoring charts. Leicester currently sit first with 28 points, having only lost once in 13 games. Leicester are also the Premier League’s top scoring team with 28 goals, eclipsing Manchester City’s 27. This is in no small part down to Jamie Vardy’s 13 goals this season. The former Halifax Town striker has been in smashing shape, equalling former Manchester United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record of ten goals in as many consecutive games with his strike against Newcastle.
The Leicester City man will be hoping to add to his four England caps at next summer’s Euros. If his form continues in this manner, it would be impossible to ignore Vardy, who won’t just be knocking on the door for a call up; he will be knocking it down.
Vardy is able to bring an incredible work ethic to his teammates. Along with his pace and ability to play on the shoulder of a defender, he is also a deadly finisher able to take the chances that present themselves to him. This is displayed by his 13 goals this season. Even if Vardy’s form were to drop slightly this season, he could still be looking at 25 goals or more with over half the season to go.
Next in the potential candidates for England is Tottenham’s Harry Kane, who has been a revelation since the start of the 2014/15 season. He scored 21 goals in 34 appearances, meaning he was only second to Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero in the battle to be the Premier League’s top scorer. Kane helped Spurs finish fifth in the league, only six points off Manchester United in fourth and a Champions League place.
Along with Kane’s run of good form, he was called up to the England senior team. Kane got his England career off to a dream start, scoring within minutes of replacing Wayne Rooney in a 4-0 win over Lithuania in England’s Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. He also went on to net against San Marino and Switzerland, as England secured their place at next summer’s tournament.
The 2015/16 season has been inconsistent thus far. Eight goals in the league is a decent output, however, Kane had to wait almost 750 minutes for a goal before slotting one in during a 4-1 victory over Manchester City. It had caused some fans to question whether Kane was a one-season wonder – a sensational one at that. After a slow start, Kane now has eight goals this season, including a hat-trick against Bournemouth and a brace against local rivals, West Ham, which have revived both Kane’s scoring and Tottenham’s challenge for a Champions League place.
Kane’s work rate and aerial ability make him a nightmare for defenders, while his general ball control and shooting has improved exponentially, making him a huge threat in front of goal. Kane looks to be maturing into the total striker – or close to it. Challenging himself against the best defenders in the Premier League will only serve to improve both his ability and chances of being one of Hodgson’s strikers next summer.
Away from London, Liverpool have undergone a renaissance since the arrival of Jürgen Klopp. Away wins at Chelsea and a superb display against Manchester City in their 4-1 victory have fans dreaming of a return to the old glory days once again. Their triumph over City was made even more impressive by the fact they scored the majority of their goals without a recognised striker on the pitch. Philippe Coutinho ran the show as City’s defence, in particular Eliaquim Mangala and Martín Demichelis, were carved open at will with only goalkeeper, Joe Hart, retaining a fairly respectable score-line.
However, Liverpool will soon have Daniel Sturridge fit again and raring to make up for the time he has lost to injury, which will make Liverpool even more imposing. Sturridge was a revelation during The Reds’ 2013/14 campaign, when he and Luis Suárez scored 52 goals between them, of which Sturridge bagged 21. However, his 2014/15 season was blighted by injury, meaning Sturridge was only able to play 12 times in the league, scoring four goals. This season has been a similar story with injury stunting his development. Three appearances have produced two goals with the England striker once again subject to a string of injuries.
Sturridge is of course an exceptionally talented player; his finishing is deadly, whilst his pace coupled with his technical ability allows him to take on defenders at speed before, more often than not, finding a decent finish. He is clearly a very talented individual. Limited game time at Manchester City and Chelsea, along with being played on the wing, away from his preferred position as a striker, resulted in a move to Liverpool. Sturridge could have stayed at either City or Chelsea and might have been quite content with limited game time and being out of position when he was played. However, he showed his confidence in his own ability and took a chance by moving to Liverpool. This move has paid dividends for Sturridge; when fully fit, he has established himself as one of the most threatening strikers in the Premier League.
The next candidate has attempted to traverse the difficult road of a winger forging a path as a striker. The most notable examples of this shift are Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, who have transferred from a left wing and right wing, respectively, into formidable strikers. This is the same path that Theo Walcott is looking to tread.
Walcott’s 2012/13 season remains his most prolific to date, scoring 14 goals in 32 appearances. His career, like that of Sturridge, has been littered with injuries. His 2015/16 campaign has seen him only make six league appearances with two goals. Walcott has found the transition to a striker a difficult one, with Olivier Giroud preferred up front by manager Arsène Wenger.
Walcott will find it difficult to displace any of the current strikers in the England set-up, as he does not yet hold all the necessary capabilities to be a striker. He has pace in abundance and is able to give any defender problems when he runs in behind, but he does not have the ability with the ball that Sturridge has. He also lacks the ability Kane has to beat multiple defenders in a confined space, while he does not have the superb finishing that all of Vardy, Kane, Sturridge and Rooney possess.
The final possible striker that Hodgson has used in the past is Danny Welbeck. In 2014, Welbeck moved to Arsenal from Manchester United in search of first team football. Welbeck’s initial career with Arsenal started brightly, most notably with a Champions League hat-trick against Galatasaray in a 4-1 win, and the goal which knocked out former employers, Manchester United, in the quarter-final of the FA cup.
However, Welbeck’s 2015/16 season has been stunted by injury, with a knee injury ruling him out until Christmas. Welbeck has been labelled a promising talent and, at 24, he still has many years ahead of him. However, he failed to nail down his place in the Manchester United team and has also struggled at Arsenal. If Welbeck is to blossom into the player that many critics think he can be, then he will have to stay injury free and force his way into the Arsenal starting team. Without regular game time, Welbeck will realistically have no chance of being one of the strikers at next summer’s tournament.
With such a plethora of offensive talent, someone will miss out. With all things considered, and assuming the five candidates stay injury free and are able to play at least 15 games before the end of the season, then it is most likely that Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott will miss out on the trip to France. Daniel Sturridge is too clinical to leave out, while Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy instil a sense of invulnerability as they are yet to taste a sobering failure in an England senior shirt at a major tournament. While Walcott would not make the squad as a striker, he may be employed in his more natural position on the wing where he can use his pace in more open space. That, therefore, leaves Vardy, Sturridge and Kane to accompany Wayne Rooney as England’s strike force for the tournament.
The next question is: who starts for England at France 2016? Irrespective of the results, unless England win the tournament, there will always be fans and critics who say it was a mistake playing one of the strikers over the other. That is the next, albeit far less welcome headache for Roy Hodgson. All the forwards can do from here is not rest on their laurels; they have to surge ahead, continue to score goals and put in strong performances. If they can carry their form into the European Championship, then at last England might have an offence that can create fear within their opponents and finally challenge at a major tournament.