Was the group stage exit in Brazil really only two years ago? In recent months, England supporters’ pessimism has turned into cautious optimism, with the emergence of exciting young players persuading many that Roy Hodgson’s charges could make an impression this summer after all. That feeling’s been strengthened by their 100% record in qualifying, followed by friendly wins over France (albeit in unique circumstances), Germany, Turkey and Australia.
Euro 2016 may be a little too soon for this team to pull off England’s second triumph at a major tournament. Still, with a bit of good fortune, a place in the semi-finals isn’t too unrealistic a target.
Can they shake off
The Golden Generation is no more, with quarter-final appearances in 2002, 2004 and 2006 the best that England’s supposedly greatest-ever collection of players could manage. The current crop may not have as many star names as the Lampard-Beckham-Gerrard-Scholes-Terry-Cole-Ferdinand-Owen side of yesteryear, but football – as England themselves found – isn’t about simply cramming your most gifted individuals into a vaguely workable formation.
The nation’s hope is that Roy’s boys will be unencumbered by England’s previous shortcomings and play without fear in France, although it remains to be seen how well they’d react to adversity or the high-pressure situations that come in a knockout competition. There’s certainly a lot of positivity right now, however, with most England fans simply excited by the prospect of being able to watch a young and potentially thrilling side go about their business.
Unlike in previous years, there’s no real pressure on the team to come home with the trophy, which could actually aid them in their pursuit of it. It’s been some time since England met expectations, but this could be the competition in which when they finally do themselves justice.
What they’ve learned
Play your own game. England qualified for Euro 2016 in style, winning all 10 of their matches, scoring 31 goals and conceding only three. Granted, a group featuring Switzerland, Estonia, Slovenia, Lithuania and San Marino was always going to be reasonably straightforward, but England’s performances and results show they don’t have much to fear heading into the finals.
Hodgson and his players should therefore have the confidence to impose their own game on the opposition, taking the initiative by pressing, harrying and never allowing a moment’s peace. Such an approach may need tweaking in later rounds, but England should certainly be proactive in the group stage.
Options up front
Some fans and pundits criticised Hodgson’s decision to leave behind Jermain Defoe and, to a lesser extent, Andy Carroll, but England are strong enough at centre-forward to make both of those decisions entirely understandable.
Harry Kane, favourite to lead the Three Lions’ line in France, netted 25 times to scoop the 2015/16 Premier League Golden Boot, becoming the first Englishman in 17 years to win it. Meanwhile, late bloomer Jamie Vardy finished only a single strike behind the Tottenham man, level with Sergio Aguero in second. Throw in England’s all-time leading goal-getter Wayne Rooney, the brilliant-when-fit Daniel Sturridge and teenage sensation Marcus Rashford, and it’s clear that Hodgson has a lot to work with up top.
For all the excitement going forward, there are significant concerns for England in the heart of defence. Ball-playing John Stones was christened the next Franz Beckenbauer at the start of the season but has endured a difficult 2016, with the result that Gary Cahill – who hasn’t exactly had a brilliant campaign himself – is now the most likely partner for the much-improved Chris Smalling in central defence.
Phil Jagielka probably doesn’t have Europe’s top marksmen shaking in their boots, but his omission from the squad does leave England a little bare in a key area. Eric Dier can fill in at centre-half if needs be, but dropping him back into defence would provoke another problem in the centre of midfield, where the Tottenham man is the only natural holding player in the travelling party. A failure to keep things tight at the back could prove England’s undoing.
Kane had another terrific campaign with Spurs, silencing those who labelled him a one-season wonder after a dry patch in front of goal during the 2015/16 season’s opening weeks. Hodgson has continually professed his loyalty to Rooney over the past 12 months or so but Kane has surely now done enough to usurp the captain as his country’s first-choice No.9, despite only recently reaching double figures for senior international caps.
The 22-year-old again showed what a fine finisher he is as Tottenham secured a return to the Champions League. Strikes against Liverpool, Arsenal and Stoke – not to mention a magnificent Cruyff turn and finish in England’s friendly defeat of Germany – stood out in 2016.
Kane has also developed his link-up play since making his breakthrough at White Hart Lane; he’s always happy to move wide, drop deep and bring team-mates into the game. The more you watch him play, the more you see sense in the comparisons with Teddy Sheringham.
The Spurs hitman will be full of confidence as he attempts to take his club form to the international stage in his first tournament with England. If he fires, the Three Lions have every chance.
Much of the criticism directed at Hodgson is unfair: he’s certainly not as conservative as is often implied. England have underwhelmed at both of his tournaments in charge, though, and while he can be forgiven for Euro 2012 given the lack of preparation time, the 68-year-old has no such excuse this time around.
One of Hodgson’s remits was to oversee the St George’s Park talent factory, and his rejuvenation of England means they have the youngest squad at Euro 2016. If his exciting array of attackers can overcome the group’s defensive frailties to produce a run deep into the knockouts, Hodgson may well get his contract extended – meaning he would become only the second manager since Sir Alf Ramsey to lead England into a fourth competition campaign.