The former Guardian, Independent, Observer, Sunday Telegraph and Times and current Evening Standard scribe selects a fitness-no-object team that acknowledges Tottenham’s newfound preeminence as purveyors of young English talent.
My England team to start Euro 2016 assumes that every English player on the planet will be fit for the tournament, and that means ready to perform a few weeks in advance of the kick-off against Russia in Marseille on June 11.
Time is therefore short for Jack Wilshere. I have nevertheless included him because he is so much better equipped than any other player in his position.
My team lines up 4-2-3-1 because this is the basic formation that best suits English players, encouraging them to operate between the lines.
It easily converts to 4-3-3 by dropping Dele Alli back to the right of Eric Dier and having a front three of Jamie Vardy (right attacker), Harry Kane (centre-forward) and Wayne Rooney (left attacker). The team lines up:
Goalkeeper: Joe Hart
Goalkeeper: Joe Hart
The Manchester City man is the first name on the team-sheet in more ways than one.
He was always a strong character, but seems to have matured since the last European Championship, from which the image lingers of his antics in the face of Andrea Pirlo.
Remember that? It was in the penalty decider that sent Italy into the semi-finals. Hart tried to put Pirlo off and was humiliated with a dink.
The following year, the great Gianluigi Buffon, who had been watching from the other end, described Hart as the world’s best keeper.
The Englishman had endured a crisis of form in 2013/4 and been dropped by Manuel Pellegrini in favour of Costel Pantilimon, but had got over that as well and now even the considerable challenge of Stoke’s Jack Butland can be resisted.
Indeed this might have helped to keep an edge of Hart’s game. Amid all City’s inconsistencies, he has been a rock.
Hodgson obviously appreciates his character. When the manager rested Wayne Rooney for a friendly away to Spain four months ago, Hart was made national captain. He exudes just the sort of fierce ambition that will be required in France. And – perhaps most important of all – he’s free of dandruff.
Right back: Jon Flanagan
The unlucky Flanagan has yet to start a full international – his only England appearance was as a substitute in a friendly against Ecuador before the World Cup of 2014, for which Roy Hodgson named him as a standby – but I have no hesitation in naming him ahead of Liverpool colleague Nathaniel Clyne at right-back.
This is not intended to disparage Clyne, merely to emphasise the class of Flanagan. If there were two of him, I might even have the other at left-back.
That’s how good Flanagan is. Because he plays for Liverpool, he has been compared with Steve Nicol, who could likewise play to the high standard on either side, but I think he’s even more similar to the former Manchester United full-back Denis Irwin: very neat and tidy going forward, but with a bite at the back.
Because of his poor record of fitness, however, Flanagan has made only dozens of appearances for his club, when it could have been a couple of hundred since his debut as an 18-year-old five years ago.
He missed the whole of last season, and half of this, with knee problems but is back and impressing Jurgen Klopp as much as he did Brendan Rodgers, Kenny Dalglish – and Hodgson.
Centre-back: Chris Smalling
To pick Chris Smalling is to omit – at least from the starting line-up – Gary Cahill and that is done with a heavy heart because Cahill is the more experienced and has seldom let England down.
He also has better feet and a knack of finishing well when called into the opposing penalty area for a set-piece. But try to imagine yourself as a forward and ask yourself which of the two you would rather play against and the answer would probably be Cahill.
Smalling is horrible. Has he really only four limbs? At least eight seem to be crawling over every opponent with whom he challenges for the ball – and he seems to know exactly what referees will let him get away with.
He is also quick enough to keep up with most of those who elude him. And he’s pretty good in the air. So he gets the decision. He seems the best blend with John Stones, who is as pure a footballing centre-back as England could possibly find; you need a dedicated defender alongside.
Another good point about Smalling is that he can be used at right-back. I always like a centre-back with experience of other positions.
Centre-back: John Stones
John Stones is what England have needed for many years, indeed decades. Rio Ferdinand was a central defender very well equipped to come forward and link with the midfield, as was John Terry for that matter, but they didn’t seem to like doing it – or had perhaps been discouraged by their clubs from doing so.
Luckily for England, there was a time when Bobby Moore was granted freedom to advance and create, and it seems that Roberto Martinez at Everton is as happy as Stones when he uses his skill on the ball to put opponents on the back foot.
Whether Stones can achieve half as much as Moore is another matter, but Chelsea tried hard to tempt Everton last summer – even if their top bid of £30m received the contempt it deserved – and there has since been plausible talk of Barcelona taking an interest.
That’s how lucky England are to have the young Yorkshireman and Hodgson, I hope, will not only pick him, but use him to the full, because he could give the side an extra dimension if he is allowed to slip into midfield with Eric Dier ready to fill in at the back.
It’s a good omen that the manager had him on the standby list for the World Cup even though he was just out of his teens. Hodgson had seen something special.
Left-back: Ryan Bertrand
Bertrand had a superb first season at Southampton and has again done well in this campaign. When he goes forward, he can really play, resembling a young Ashley Cole – appropriately enough, since he understudied Cole at Chelsea.
Like Flanagan, he is short of full international experience. He has seven caps but didn’t start a match until the friendly in Ireland last summer.
If Hodgson wants experience, he can turn to Leighton Baines, but the Everton man didn’t have the most impressive World Cup (it might reasonably be contended that few players did).
Danny Rose has contributed to the rise of Tottenham this season. Another candidate might be Kieran Gibbs, but he has suffered at Arsenal from the consistent excellence of Nacho Monreal.
Anyway, Bertrand has done enough to merit the shirt. At 26, his time has come and the wisdom of his leaving Stamford Bridge can no longer be questioned.
Deep midfield: Eric Dier
England have missed this type of player since injury struck Owen Hargreaves down.
They have gone to tournament after tournament with an imbalanced midfield and Joey Barton probably described it best when he said of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard: ‘’They need a ball each.’’
Dier, like Hargreaves – and Nobby Stiles when England won the only tournament they ever have – does his work when the opposition have the ball.
A product of the Sporting Lisbon academy, he came to Tottenham regarded as a promising centre-back capable of filling in at right-back, but he had already been used by Sporting boss Jesualdo Ferreira as a holding midfielder and Mauricio Pochettino astutely recognised that he should be employed there.
So dedicatedly does Dier patrol the area in front of the centre-backs that Spurs have an excellent defensive record despite allowing both full-backs to bomb forward.
There’s more to it than that, of course, and I see Spurs as supplying the equivalent of what West Ham donated to England in 1966: three important players.
Dier is as important as Dele Alli or Harry Kane because, in his position, I can’t see a rival.
Deep midfield: Jack Wilshere
As gifted as he is injury-prone, Jack Wilshere inhabits that rare category of players for whom a place should be reserved, just in case the gift of fitness presents itself to him. England don’t have many with the ability of the Arsenal midfielder to beat a man and execute a special pass.
I have positioned him alongside Dier in what you might call the old Andrea Pirlo role: deep, as in the Italian’s 2006 World Cup campaign.
Wilshere has to play deep because, when he pursues his natural inclination to burst forward, play one-twos and beat men in bunches, his ankles are exposed and suffer terribly. For some reason, he doesn’t have the ability of a Lionel Messi, for example, to glide over tackles and instead invites their full weight.
He’s probably not going to acquire that knack now, at the age of 24, and so he must be protected by playing at – to use pre-1966 terminology – wing-half rather than inside-forward.
It’s not going to do Wilshere any harm because his long passing, while sometimes overlooked, is at least as effective as his short game. And it is also tailor-made for Jamie Vardy, who loves to turn and run into space; Wilshere can be to Vardy of England what Riyad Mahrez has been to Vardy of Leicester. If fit.
Left attacking midfield: Wayne Rooney
You may remember how the teenage Rooney rampaged from the halfway line against Croatia in 2004. He is seldom so exciting these days, even as he breaks goalscoring records for club and country.
He will never truly be comparable with Sir Bobby Charlton unless he wins something with England – and this is probably the last chance.
At least Rooney no longer feels the weight of expectation and what I’d like to see from him in France is a bit of enjoyment. Let him start on the left – it suits him out wide; indeed he used naturally to drift there – and roam creatively.
If chances come his way, good. If he makes them for others, equally good. At least he no longer has the burden of being his country’s messiah-in-waiting.
I did think of leaving Rooney out.
If we think back to the World Cup, in which Raheem Sterling rivalled Daniel Sturridge and Jack Wilshere as the saving grace of England’s campaign in Brazil, it seems a little strange not to be considering Sterling, but the estrangement from Liverpool and move to Manchester City appears to have done more for his bank balance than his football development and, if there’s a shirt free, I’d rather give it to the adaptable Danny Welbeck.
Right attacking midfield: Dele Alli
Here is, potentially, England’s most exciting contribution to a European Championship since an 18-year-old Rooney burst on the scene in Portugal 12 years ago.
Dele Alli is more than just a very, very promising midfield player; he has a sense of occasion, as was proved when Roy Hodgson gave him a first senior start against France and he responded by beating his Tottenham captain, Hugo Lloris, with an audacious long-range drive.
Alli has the lot. He is quick enough, can tackle, reads the game, beats a man and picks from a variety of passes. But it’s his gift for improvisation that marks him out as extra-special and we all savoured how he scored against Crystal Palace this season.
When a Harry Kane cross was nodded back to him he took three touches, all with the right foot and all on the volley, in the space of a split second, and the only debate afterwards was over which was the more thrilling: the flip on the half-turn that made space for the shot or the shot itself.
We’re likely to spend the next decade talking about Dele Alli. Having been picked up by Spurs from Milton Keynes Dons for an initial £5 million, he’ll certainly figure in any argument about bargain buys. The only reservation is over his temperament. He bristles too easily.
Central attacking midfield/Second striker: Harry Kane
Is Harry Kane still only 22? Must he really wait until the middle of next season to record a century of Premier League appearances? It’s hard to credit because the Tottenham forward has so quickly established himself as one of the League’s most potent threats, alongside the likes of Sergio Aguero and Diego Costa.
Kane is a manager’s dream: a consistent goalscorer with high footballing intelligence and an excellent attitude to the game and those around him.
He smacks the ball nice and early and, while he’s better with foot than head, you can bet that he’ll keep working at the latter because his career has been all about improvement. Hardened by loan spells in various divisions, he appreciates life at the highest level and makes the most of it.
You can see that he often played in midfield as a teenager and I’m among those who think he’d be ideal as a sort of No. 10 – call him a 9 ½ if you like – behind Jamie Vardy.
If the chances are made, Kane will take them and he’s certainly one of my candidates to be a star of the tournament. Worth a punt as leading scorer at 28/1? Maybe not with 11/1 shot Robert Lewandowski around.
Striker: Jamie Vardy
Not many teams at Euro 2016 will have their oldest player in the most physically demanding role. But the career of Jamie Vardy has seldom been about orthodoxy and now, at 29, less than four years after shooting Fleetwood Town into the Football League, he finds himself in with a chance of another first; if Leicester win the Premier League title, he’ll be one of the main reasons.
He could even end up Footballer of The Year. And that would be only the start of his summer if I picked the England team, for Vardy is my perfect England centre-forward.
Yes, he scores goals, but what makes him even more of a threat to defences is the speed of his non-stop running – it’s as if he’s trying to make up time lost in the profligate early stages of his career – which makes space for those coming in behind.
In England terms, those would include Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney. With opponents reluctant to adopt too high a defensive line, it could be an important factor.
There is, of course, the possibility that Vardy could be tired at the end of the season. Only then would I consider Daniel Sturridge as a starter. Vardy offers all the Liverpool man has, and more.
For the latest bettings odds on Euro 2016 visit: https://sports.bwin.com/en/sports/4/8644/betting/euro-2016.