With just two weeks to go to the start of the European Championship, England are still trying to work out their seemingly age-old problem: who to play on the left side of midfield?
It may be that this problem is the fundamental problem for all football teams, given that on average only about one in 10 people are left-handed (and consequently only about 10% of footballers are naturally left-footed) and ideally every football team requires at least two players to play on the left: one at left-back; and one in left midfield, or on the left wing. For England, however, the problem has always appeared to be particularly acute.
Ryan Bertrand: The Answer to England’s Left-Side Problem
In past England teams, naturally right-footed midfielders (who have often also been essentially central midfielders) have often been forced to play on the left side of midfield or left wing, in the absence of any “natural” left-footed players. The classic example is Paul Scholes, who was frequently asked to fill this role by Sven-Goran Eriksson for England, but eventually grew so frustrated at being played out of position that he retired from international football nearly a full decade before he retired from the club game.
In recent years, the absence of any natural left-sided English midfielders (all the best left-wingers in the Premier League, from Eden Hazard to Riyad Mahrez, are foreign) has meant that the current England manager, Roy Hodgson, has often played Danny Welbeck wide on the left. Welbeck himself is naturally right-footed, but is so industrious (unlike many left-wingers, he never fails to protect his left-back) and so versatile (being capable of playing either as a striker or as a winger, or to use the more precise modern term “wide attacker”) that he was one of Hodgson’s mainstays during qualifying for Euro 2016. However, the right knee injury that he sustained in Arsenal’s penultimate league game of the season against Manchester City, barely two months after he had returned from an injury to his left knee that had kept him out for almost a year, has ruled him out of all football until 2017 at the earliest and caused Hodgson a huge headache.
Hodgson has already tried several alternatives to Welbeck on the left-hand side of midfield and/or attack, including most recently Jamie Vardy against Turkey last weekend. However, Vardy lacks Welbeck’s versatility, probably because he is a “purer” central striker, and it was only when he was put alongside Harry Kane in attack that he really showed his club form for the international side. Put simply, like so many before him Vardy had looked lost on the left.
With just over a fortnight before England’s Euro 2016 opener against Russia, and only two remaining friendlies before the tournament in which to experiment, Hodgson has almost certainly left it too late to solve his left-sided problem and will probably end up trying to shoehorn either Vardy or his captain, Wayne Rooney, into the team by stationing them out wide. And yet, if he were only to adopt an open mind, Hodgson might realise that the solution to who goes wide on the left is already to hand (and to his left hand at that) – it is playing Ryan Bertrand in midfield.
Of course Bertrand is officially a left-back but like so many fullbacks in the modern game he is not only proficient in defence but an accomplished attacker. And he already has experience of, as it were, being thrown in at the deep end in an unfamiliar position. This is the player, after all, who made his Champions League debut for Chelsea in the 2012 Champions League Final against Bayern Munich, when Chelsea – playing Bayern in their home stadium in front of effectively their home crowd – defied the odds and won the biggest trophy in European football.
For a European novice, Bertrand was extraordinary that night, giving one of the most accomplished debuts, if not the most accomplished debut, by any footballer in a major competition. It is true that his role then was primarily defensive, helping the left-back behind him, Ashley Cole, to fend off the rampaging Philip Lahm and Thomas Müller, as part of Chelsea’s Rourke’s Drift-like rearguard action that eventually won them the trophy on penalties. And it is also true that after that stunning first appearance in the Champions League, Bertrand barely made another appearance in the competition for Chelsea, as the returning Jose Mourinho preferred the right-footed (and, typically for Mourinho, more muscular) César Azpilicueta to him at left-back, eventually prompting his transfer to Southampton early in 2015.
Since that move, however, Bertrand has excelled for Southampton, eventually winning an England call-up and although he has been selected as a left-back for Euro 2016 now is the time for Hodgson to try him in left midfield. The inclusion of another natural left-footer in the team, in front of Danny Rose at left-back, would not only provide much better overall balance in midfield for the whole side but it would allow Rose and Bertrand to alternate or dovetail with each other, with Bertrand filling in for Rose when he launches one of his typically lung-busting left-wing runs. Indeed, there may even be an argument for playing Rose, who is certainly a better attacking full-back than he is a defensive one (as illustrated by his mistake against Turkey, which led to their goal) in left midfield, with Bertrand behind him.
Older England fans may remember that a similar suggestion was made about two other fine left-footed fullbacks in the 1980s. For a long time, Kenny Sansom was England’s most capped fullback and he was certainly one of the first names on the England team-sheet for both Ron Greenwood and Bobby Robson, but such was the superb athleticism and crossing ability of West Bromwich Albion’s Derek Statham that many fans and other observers felt that it was worth experimenting with both players on the left, with the more naturally attacking Statham on the left side of midfield.
Of course, such were England’s uncharacteristically plentiful options in left midfield in the 1980s – first with Graham Rix and then even more impressively with John Barnes and Chris Waddle – that the Sansom/Statham experiment was never tried. Now, however, there are no such natural widemen and so it is worth at the very least, and even at this late stage, experimenting with a Rose/Bertrand left flank. The alternative – of playing either Vardy or Rooney out of position – has already been tried and it has failed. Consequently now is the time for the naturally conservative Hodgson to make a sudden and uncharacteristic switch to the far left and play two natural left-footers in his England team.