England – the Forward Problem

31st May 2013

Since Owen, Heskey and even Crouch, the number 9 shirt for England has been somewhat up for grabs for the best part of 3 years, and although strikers such as Bent, Carroll, Welbeck and Defoe have taken up the role, none have cemented their place. With Rooney playing deeper and deeper into England’s midfield Roy Hodgson’s side will need to tie down its striking options sooner rather than later as the 2014 World Cup approaches. Although their place is not yet secured, England will be expected to qualify, but with the team beginning to rely on Lampard for important goals, who may not even be in the international picture in a year’s time, the forward problem is potentially one of England’s greatest worries. This report will systematically review the options available to Hodgson in an attempt to cast some light on who should be ‘banging them in’ for England by next summer.

Jermaine Defoe – The Safe Option
Defoe was very much a natural option to play alongside Crouch at the previous World Cup as the club mates played off of each other dynamically creating many chances. However with England tending to operate with a lone striker under Hodgson in front of Rooney, Defoe has the potential to become extremely isolated. This being said he played with role extremely successfully under Villas Boas at Tottenham at the beginning of the season, netting 8 goals in 8 games over November and early December. This kind of consistency is what England has been crying out for, however this was a period where Defoe’s place in the team was secured with Adebayor’s injury problems. It seems that this lack of pressure suits Defoe and allows him to reach his best goal-scoring form. Unfortunately however the national set-up involves much greater competition and Defoe’s lack of ability to retain form has led to his subsidiary role as second/third choice for England. Defoe’s finishing is unquestionable and is probably the most impressive of all his striking competition, but with Tottenham likely to strengthen in forward positions for next season, he could find himself, very much like the end of this season, sat on the bench, not good for any player’s World Cup aspirations.

Andy Carroll – The Wild Card
Carroll’s form at the end of his loan spell at West Ham saw him return to his bullish dominance of his Newcastle days. Few can question his aerial prowess but with only 7 goals this season some question his reliability as a goalscorer. However, all these goals came in his last 16 matches and when he was not scoring he provided a further 4 assists for his teammates contributing a total of 11 team goals, impressive for just over half a season. This ultimately shows that whether scoring or not, Carroll has a definitive and positive influence on matches and centre backs certainly know they’ve had a game when leaving Upton Park. Carroll’s dominance since Christmas though has been primarily due to Allardyce’s style of play as he, unlike Rogers at Liverpool, based his entire team around Caroll, bringing the best out of him, rather than playing intricate, box play passing which obviously does not suit him. This being said Carroll brings more to the England team than just height and aerial threats, his ball control is impressive at times and as he showed at Newcastle he can score all sorts of goals, especially left-footed screamers from 25 years. Carroll’s potential as an England number 9 however is reliant on two factors, the first being whether Hodgson is prepared to build his team around him and play to his strengths. This is a risky option both in terms of success and longevity as a manager as the media are quick to criticise a manger playing long balls into the box without extreme success in doing so. This being said, England have the decent ball-distributing players to do this, as shown against Sweden at Euro 2012, where ‘Gerrard to Carroll, England 1-0’ became a popular commentary memory in Donetsk. Secondly, Carroll’s club for the 2013-2014 season is a huge determining factor, Liverpool look unlikely to keep him thus if West Ham thrash out a deal, one can easily see him impressing once more and forcing Hodgson’s hand, if he stays fit. However if a move elsewhere is unsuccessful, Carroll could find it extremely difficult to tie down England’s number 9 shirt. One thing is for sure though, and that is that he should figure in every one of Hodgson’s squads, because his ability as a substitute to change games, cannot be overstated.

Danny Welbeck – The Versatile Option
The Manchester Utd man’s club form does not stand him in good stead for a place in the national team with only 1 goal in the Premier League all season; he has been far from prolific. This being said, if one striker could be labelled as Hodgson’s number 9, it would be Welbeck who has figured in most Euro 2012 games and scored 5 international goals in the last 12 months. Welbeck’s versatility lends itself well to a Hodgson side which has favored players such as Milner and Cleverly for their potential to play different roles across a 90 minute period. A major factor for Welbeck’s lack of club goals this season has been Ferguson’s tendency to play him in an inside, left position because of his impressive energy and ability to close down and track back well. This has been reflected in the England team where he has also played this role in later periods of games as a new fresh striker is brought on. This is a useful tactic, but Welbeck as a player potentially needs more time to cement his national place. The 22 year old certainly has all the tools to do this as his speed compliments counter-attacks well and his box play has proved extremely successful for England as he has played a key role in many chances created over the last year. Welbeck, if chosen, would provide energy and adaptability few could match, his potency and goalscoring consistency however could let him down. Great for the future yes, but Welbeck will need to prove himself now, to become England’s number 9 in years to come.

Daniel Sturridge – The all rounder?
There is no doubt Sturridge has attracted attention with his goalscoring form since his January move to Liverpool as he has scored 11 goals in red since Christmas, compared to his 2 in blue at the start of the season. Although this is very much due to amount of time spent on the pitch, this does show what Sturridge can do with a run in the team and a manager’s confidence. Sturridge has shown he has all the qualities of a ball-playing team’s number 9, with significant pace, ball control and most impressively fantastic composure and finishing from all angles. Under Rodgers, Sturridge has proven his footballing intelligence with understanding of quick, passing moves and has also proved his critics wrong by successfully operating through the middle, whereas previously only trusted with a right-wing role. At 23, the Liverpool striker ultimately needs game time to improve and flourish into an international striker, yet with Suarez’s imminent departure to Madrid, this looks like this could certainly occur. Sturridge showed in his first 30 minutes against Ireland and Wembley that on the ball, he can make things happen, and although often criticised as selfish, this will improve with maturity, and even if it does not, selfish strikers often are the greatest strikers.

It could be argued that Sturridge has the greatest chance in the 2013-2014 season to prove himself as the kind of number 9 England needs. Nevertheless if this does not materialise, it should also not be forgotten that in the U21 setup, best friends Sturridge and Welbeck, formed one of the most devastating strike partnerships of that international level. Playing the two together, whilst attempting to also accommodate Rooney, could be Hodgson’s solution to the goalscoring issue in the national team before the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Rob Schofield