MIRACULOUSLY, England emerged unscathed, save for some nasty bumps and bruises, from their final World Cup warm-up against the hit-men of Honduras and, for me, the most significant aspect of that is that Jack Wilshere proved his fitness. In doing so, the tough little Arsenal midfielder declared his readiness to start against Italy next Saturday night.
I have been saying all season that Wilshere is crucial to England’s chances of success in Brazil, while airing my concerns about his ability to stay fit. Well, he’s given Arsenal and England plenty of reason to worry on that score over the past 12 months, but the way he started to dictate the play when he came on in the second half, with short passing, one-twos around the edge of the box and dangerous runs at the Honduran defence, showed just why he is so important to the cause.
We need a fit and firing Wilshere, a player whose skills can enable England to get behind defenders, which is vital, especially at this ultimate level and particularly in a team that is not operating with width. Raheem Sterling and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – when, and if, fit – can give us that width, but I feel these lads will come into their own as impact substitutes, in the final 20 minutes, when the opposition may be tiring. I think Roy Hodgson will have a more cautious approach in the opening match, hoping he will be in a position to unleash players like Ross Barkley, Sterling and Oxlade-Chamberlain on Costa Rica from the start in the final group game, particularly if goals are required.
If Oxlade-Chamberlain is not given the green light this week, I would resist the temptation to add another midfielder and, instead, draft in Everton’s fast-emerging defender John Stones, who can fill in with equal confidence at right-back or centre-half. My biggest concern remains with the defence and the worry that if either of the first-choice centre-backs, Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill, get injured, the replacements are not adequate.
I am a fan of Adam Lallana, but I don’t think he has done quite enough to start against Italy. I would go with Wilshere in a midfield three alongside Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson. Despite my well documented misgivings about Danny Welbeck’s goals output, I have nothing but admiration for him as a team player, whose athleticism, height and work rate earn him his place alongside Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge at the front. Rooney remains the class act who is yet to shine at a World Cup. He doesn’t seem to have the burst of pace that used to take him past opponents, but he remains a top quality footballer. Let’s hope he brings out his best on Saturday – and beyond.
My team to start against Italy: Hart; Johnson, Jagielka, Cahill, Baines; Henderson, Gerrard, Wilshere; Rooney; Welbeck, Sturridge.
Now, it’s with regret that I have to say this will be my last blog, certainly for the immediate future. I am joining Norwich City, my last club as a player, as Football Consultant and the club and I agree it would be inappropriate for me to be airing my opinions on football matters while in their employ.
I want to thank all of you who have written or told me in person how much you have enjoyed reading this website over the past 13 months, not to mention the many who have made it plain they disagree with my views! And I want to say a big thank you to my friend of nearly 50 years, Bill Thornton, the journalist who collaborated with me on my autobiography and who has helped translate my ramblings into readable prose here on Director of Football. Me and Bill make a pretty good team, too.