Big Midweek: England, Loftus-Cheek, Southgate, Iceland

Date published: Tuesday 11th September 2018 7:53

Game to watch – England vs Switzerland
Of course the negativity has set in. It has been almost three months since England last played in a World Cup semi-final and we were most recently outpassed by an offshoot of the best passing team in the history of the game, so it’s entirely appropriate to be negative about England again. We can’t compete, waa waa.

Or, you can be a grown-up about these things. You can, as Gareth Southgate implored, realise that England are better suffering setbacks while attempting to forge a footballing identity than occasionally competing with teams playing a haphazard system that ends in major tournament failure and immediately gets ripped up when a new manager is appointed. If it’s suddenly breaking news that Spain are a better passing team than England, the last 12 months really did change public opinion.

Yes, England have now lost three matches in a row. But one of those was an extra-time defeat in a World Cup semi-final and another was a virtual dead rubber. England should have been two or three goals up against Croatia; this is a sport of miniscule margins. As long as the process is clear and the end destination continuously strived for, faith must remain.

This will take time. Those four words are so important I could have written them 100 times and it would still be worth repeating the point. Just because England beat Colombia and Sweden, it does not suddenly turn them into pillars of the modern game. Just because they lost to Spain, it does not mean their strategy is irrevocably flawed. Sometimes you need a little nuance rather than unhelpful hyperbole.

Still, a good way to shut up those melodramatic souls would be to beat Switzerland with a second-choice team. The Swiss are coming off the back of their second biggest victory in 14 years (and the other was against San Marino, not Iceland). Southgate will make anything between six and nine changes, so any victory and fluidity should be taken as a positive.

There are valid concerns about England’s strength in depth. The likely team to face Switzerland contains Danny Rose, Danny Welbeck, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Fabian Delph, four players who share one start so far this season. England back-up is Premier League back-up, and the argument in some quarters is that we would be better off picking young players than rusty reserves.

It is up to those given a chance against Switzerland to prove that they do merit being part of this England squad. The likes of Welbeck, Delph and Rose are surely the most under threat if they cannot hold down regular starts at club level, and the same applies to Phil Jones, Adam Lallana, Harry Winks and Daniel Sturridge.

Switzerland in a friendly might just be the perfect stage to offer that proof. A decent standard of opposition but in a relatively low-intensity scenario with little to lose. Several individuals could be playing for their immediate international futures.

 

Player to watch – Ruben Loftus-Cheek
And one of those players is Loftus-Cheek, as melodramatic as that might initially sound. I can full understand why Loftus-Cheek had the confidence in his own ability to stick around at Chelsea and impress Maurizio Sarri, but it’s hardly pessimistic to conclude that Loftus-Cheek will struggle for minutes. Jorginho and N’Golo Kante are guaranteed starters in the biggest games. Mateo Kovacic, Ross Barkley and Cesc Fabregas are alternative options.

That leaves Loftus-Cheek with a massive problem. Turning 23 in January, he is not in the same camp as Phil Foden, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Jadon Sancho, for whom the future is crucial but there is no immediate emergency. Let’s use teammate Fabregas as the contrast: At Loftus-Cheek’s age he had 156 league starts, compared to his 27. Only six of those have come for Chelsea, and the last was in April 2016.

Yet Loftus-Cheek is in the unusual position of being more important for his country than club. If we can agree that England need more midfield steel against the highest quality opponents, Loftus-Cheek playing instead of one of Dele Alli or Jesse Lingard is a way to add that steel without altering the formation. Loftus-Cheek, naturally attacking, could be persuaded to play a box-to-box role in which protecting and recycling the ball becomes paramount. That seems to fit his skillset.

There is a suspicion that Loftus-Cheek is overrated due to his absence, a common affliction for English players on the fringes of the national team (Jonjo Shelvey is another obvious example). Nothing improves the reputation of an English player quite like not being in the national team.

But this is his chance to prove us emphatically wrong. If Loftus-Cheek is unlikely to start regularly at club level, at least until a potential loan move in January, his minutes in an England shirt only become more precious. There are several positions where Southgate can afford to leave out players who are not regular Premier League starters, but central midfield is not one. Dominate against the Swiss and Loftus-Cheek remains a fixture in Southgate’s plans.

 

Manager to watch – Michael O’Neill
Any Northern Ireland pessimism would paint O’Neill as a victim of his own substantial overachievement, but there are slight doubts creeping in about the manager’s ability to maintain his tenure of excellence. If one tenet of successful football management is choosing the right time to take the promotion, has O’Neill become a little typecast as Northern Ireland boss? Were the offers post-Euro 2016 better than they would be now?

Whatever the answers to those two questions, Northern Ireland are in sketchy form. The 2-1 friendly victory over South Korea in March was their only win in the last eight matches in a run stretching back more than 12 months.

Just as worrying is that only three current Premier League players have been used by Northern Ireland over the last year. That is supplemented by seven from the Scottish Premiership, but six of those are now the wrong side of 30. The era of Gareth McAuley, Steven Davis and Aaron Hughes is passing. Jonny Evans, Kyle Lafferty and Niall McGinn are all 30 or 31. Where is the freshness?

Having lost at home to Bosnia, Northern Ireland are favourites for relegation to UEFA Nations League C. A comfortable home friendly win against Israel is needed to avoid the mood going more than a little flat. The summer of 2016 and their combustible cult hero striker feel an awfully long time ago.

 

Team to watch – Iceland
And talking of teams for whom the bubble might have burst brings us to Iceland, whose Viking clap turned into a slow hand clap with a very different meaning last week. Losing to Switzerland is no disgrace, but being thrumped 6-0 is a disaster. Gone was the defensive organisation and ‘all for one’ team spirit, both hallmarks of Iceland’s incredible rise.

Iceland hardly embarrassed themselves in Russia at their first World Cup, but they did only take a single point from their three group games. Their last 16 games – back to this time last year – have brought defeats to Finland, Czech Republic, Mexico, Peru, Norway and Nigeria and draws against Ghana and Qatar. Erik Hamren has taken over from Heimir Hallgrimsson, but his first result was a catastrophe. Iceland last suffered a worse defeat in February 1996.

If Hamren could have done with a home friendly against meagre opposition to rally the troops, he instead faces one of the most in-form teams and players in the world. Belgium’s last 27 matches have produced 21 wins, five draws and a single defeat, to France in the World Cup semi-final. They have scored a ludicrous 84 goals over that run, and have failed to score in two competitive matches in the last three-and-a-half years.

Romelu Lukaku is in supreme goalscoring form at international level, Eden Hazard was at his slippery best in the 4-0 win over Scotland and in Michy Batshuayi they have a substitute striker desperate to score and impress every time he takes to the field. If Iceland conceded six against Switzerland…

 

European game to watch – Poland vs Ireland
The margin of Ireland’s defeat to Wales would have been enough to cause a period of mournful introspection, but the manner of it made a frank assessment inevitable. Ireland overachieved to reach the last 16 of Euro 2016, but they now face a long fight towards international relevance. The domestic game has floundered due to a lack of financial investment, and the national team is now suffering.

Ireland were missing key players for the match, but that only offers a very partial excuse for short-term setback and the long-term picture is far more damning.

The Ireland squad taken to the 2002 World Cup contained 17 Premier League players, and six from clubs that had just finished in the Premier League’s top six; all 23 were based in England. The latest squad contains seven Premier League players, representatives of Burnley (2), Wolves, Fulham, Everton, Brighton and Newcastle. Players currently contracted to Luton Town, Macclesfield and Peterborough United have been called up over the last 12 months. The difference is palpable.

Look too towards the Under-21s and realise that the supply line is also not there. The latest squad contains players from Maidstone United, AFC Fylde, Crawley Town, Mansfield Town and Portsmouth. Even the smattering of players from the Airtricity League largely come without the buzz of previous squads. A 1-1 draw with Kosovo dented their playoff hopes for the European Championship in 2019.

O’Neill and Keane need a result in Poland, or at least signs of life after Thursday’s debacle. Ireland have lost their last two competitive matches by an aggregate score of 9-2, and have won only four of their last 15 matches. They haven’t scored more than once in an away game for almost two years.

Daniel Storey

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