“You cant, Boss.” Bechkoura pleads. “Not again. Do you not learn your lessons?”
“The only lesson I’ve learned in the past few months, mate” I rebuke, feeling myself turn slightly red, “Is that apparently I’m the only person in World Football who gives even the faintest toss about bringing through defensive midfielders. If I have to raise the next generation of Makélélés, Kantés and Carlseys single handedly, then that’s exactly what I’ll do.”
“But it didn’t work with Marquinhos! How the fuck is it going to work with Stuart Coleman?!”
Some explanation may be needed here. Let me introduce my very first England squad. God, that feels good to write.
Jack Butland (Arsenal), Jordan Pickford (Sunderland AFC), Will Mannion (Norwich City)
John Stones (Liverpool), Juddy Lokando (Manchester City), Michael Keane (Real Madrid), Taylor Moore (Burnley), Harry Winks* (West Brom), Trent Alexander-Arnold (Real Sociedad on loan from Liverpool), Luke Shaw (Manchester United), Charlie Taylor (Swansea City)
Eric Dier, Dele Alli (Both Tottenham Hotspur), Reece Oxford (Watford), Jordan O’Halloran (Stoke City), Stuart Coleman* (Manchester United), Ed Salmon (AFC Bournemouth), Phil Jones (AC Milan), Lewis Cook (Manchester City)
Oliver Webb (Chelsea), Joe Bell (Stoke City), David Crammond (West Ham United), Marcus Rashford (Real Madrid)
It’s been yet another head scratcher for me, this. Just like when I arrived at Paris Saint-Germain, it’s been a real puzzle working out how I want England to play, how they’re suited to playing and how I can get all of the pieces to fit together. But after many a ripped up sheet of paper, I’ve come up with Project: Pride.
I came to the conclusion that with the massive amounts of pace that England have going forwards, I want us to play on the counter attack wherever possible, battling and chasing together, much like a pride of lions, to win the ball back before launching lightning fast counters through our attackers. I also knew that I wanted Eric Dier sitting in front of the centre backs to become an auxiliary 3rd centre back if needed, as he’s one of our best players and I believe that it’s the position that suits him best. With that decision came my first problem. If Dier’s sat in front of the defenders, we need wing backs. There’s no point in having 5 defensively minded players across the back as it’ll leave us light going forwards.
The Right Wing Back Problem
So we need someone who can come back and defend, but is just as good going forwards. Mentally strong, physically impressive and technically skilled. At the right wing back position, this proved a huge problem. These are the players who fit the bill:
As you’ll notice, barely any of the players who have the right attributes for the gig are right wing backs. One of them’s Scottish. Of the 14 who more or less suit what I’m looking for, 4 can play on the right hand side of defence in some capacity: Southampton’s Mason Holgate, as fine a player as he is, is not a wing back. He’s a good Premier League centre back but can’t cross for toffee, so he’s out. Trent Alexander-Arnold is good and made the squad, although to be honest I’m not blown away. He doesn’t scream “England’s starting wing back” to me. Brentford’s Ryan Woods is decent. He’s a good Championship midfielder who’s been known to play on the right of defence, but he’s slow off the mark and doesn’t excel in any area. He’s also never played above Championship level. Finally, Middlesborough’s Sam Byram, who just barely scrapes through into my criteria. He’s very average in all of the areas I need and isn’t all that mentally strong, so he won’t do. I actually considered using Dele Alli as my right wing back. I genuinely did. Do you know how frustrated a man has to be to consider deploying Dele Alli as a right wing back? He’d be wasted there, but luckily there is a man who fits the bill.
So we’ve got a goalkeeper, 2 centre backs, 2 wing backs and Eric Dier sat in the hole. Now we need a pair of all-action central midfielders. A box to boxer and a ball winner, who’ll chase down every ball so that Dier can stay in his position. The box to box spot was easy to fill. I’ve picked uncapped pair Jordan O’Halloran and Ed Salmon and thrown down the gauntlet to make the spot their own. They’re both very good and I’m excited to see how they do, but then we come to the next problem.
The Ball Winning Midfielder Problem. Again.
So as I say, it needs to be someone that’s completely defensively minded. Someone who will wear their heart on their sleeve, chase every ball, dive into tackles and dominate the midfield. Stick a boot in, stick a head in, dive right in front of danger for Queen and Country. Here are the players that fit the bill:
As you’ll notice, only a handful of the 8 players that match my criteria can play in midfield and most of them are holding men. Sitters. Not all action centre mids. And one of them’s Scottish. I want Michael Keane in my defence, Eric Dier is my holding man and Holgate we’ve discussed, so that leaves 5. I’ve poked fun at Kilmarnock’s Jay Fulton, but although he would be available to switch his allegiance to England, he’s just not good enough. Isaac Hayden is someone that I briefly considered, but he’s been pretty poor for Nottingham Forest in the Championship and is approaching 30, so he’s probably not about to get any better. Scott Wharton over at Derby is actually pretty good and has the attributes I need, but if I’m going to use a centre back in my midfield, I may as well go the whole hog.
Arsenal stopper Jack Butland will start in net as he has done for Eddie Howe over the last year or so with Liverpool’s Stones and City’s Juddy Lokando in front of him, giving us the perfect defending partnership of experience/ball playing abilty and youth/no nonsense. Eric Dier sits in front of them, with Winks and Shaw bombing on as the full backs, O’Halloran and Coleman are our chasers and battlers in midfield, while Dele Alli obviously starts behind Oliver Webb and Joe Bell, because it’d be pretty hypocritical of me at this point not to start Joe Bell and to be fair I think he’s our best goalscorer even when Kane’s fit. Off the ball we’ll defend together, with the wingbacks coming back to help out and the midfielders squeezing the opposition off the ball.
On the ball, the centre backs will part, Dier will slot in and the rest of the team will bomb forwards. Alli will join in with the strikers, with Bell the primary goal threat, the wingbacks will provide the width and O’Halloran will have license to get forward to help out too, as will Coleman to a lesser extent.
We’ll play narrow to restrict space in the centre, we’ll play high tempo counter attacking football, we’ll close down aggressively to win the ball back but stay on our feet so as to not take ourselves out of the game positionally. We’ll pass into the space, use our numbers through the middle but also have width through Winks and Shaw. We’ll defend as a pride and we’ll attack as a pride.
Let’s see how it fares.