England's Euro 2016 squad selection a major headache for Roy Hodgson
It should be a time for fine-tuning; for finalising the last place or two in the squad, let alone the starting XI. Yet England have four friendlies before Euro 2016. They will be conducted amid an atmosphere of uncertainty. The reality is that, for various reasons, almost every place in the team is up for grabs. There is a mass of permutations for the 23 places in the party to visit France. No one's status should be secure.
England have plenty of players, often with contrasting attributes but at similar levels, but too few are cemented in the side. The days of certainties, when names like those of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Ashley Cole and Wayne Rooney were inked onto a teamsheet, are over. Now virtually every issue is unresolved. The two clearest problems concern men whose injuries mean they will not face Germany on Saturday or the Netherlands on Tuesday. Joe Hart is established as the first-choice goalkeeper, Rooney as the captain and the fulcrum of the attack. Each, on the face of it, is uncontroversial. Yet, and although Hart has performed well for Manchester City this season, Stoke's Jack Butland has been the form English goalkeeper of the season.
Rooney's situation is more complex. He has scored more international goals (a record 51) than Roy Hodgson's entire squad (42). But despite a revival in 2016, he has still been comprehensively outperformed this season by both Jamie Vardy and Harry Kane in the Premier League. Daniel Sturridge may be the most potent English striker, but Kane's form and all-round attributes give him the most compelling case to start.
The decision is further complicated by the system. Whereas he was wedded to 4-4-2 at Euro 2012, Hodgson has played with a midfield diamond and two out-and-out attackers, 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 in qualifying. That may mean Rooney as a lone centre-forward, a second striker or a No. 10. Yet as Hodgson has more enviable striking options than any of his predecessors in the last 15 years, a more adventurous manager might dispense with the captain.
Hodgson's conservatism means he is unlikely to pursue wholesale change at a late stage, but decisions abound. Those who were entrenched in the team have tended to lose either form or fitness. Others have been propelled to prominence or have stepped up their challenge.
Take that least glamorous of positions, right-back. A year ago, Nathaniel Clyne seemed a shoo-in. But his debut season with Liverpool has been unexceptional, whereas Kyle Walker has kicked on for Tottenham.
Left-back looked simple when Luke Shaw began the season in stunning style. Then he suffered a double leg break. Hodgson now finds himself perming from a field of six. Perhaps the Manchester United man will regain fitness, and he ranks as the preferred choice if so, but the experienced alternative Leighton Baines has endured an injury-hit year for Everton and is not in the current squad. Kieran Gibbs sits on the Arsenal bench, Aaron Cresswell may rank as the best English left-back in the Premier League but Danny Rose and Ryan Bertrand are the pair in the current squad.
Phil Jones' injury problems at least simplify the centre-back situation. The other four main candidates are in Hodgson's current squad. As vice-captain, Gary Cahill ought to be assured of a place, yet he lost his spot in the Chelsea side under both Jose Mourinho and Guus Hiddink. Hodgson may have quietly celebrated Kurt Zouma's cruciate injury, granting Cahill a reprieve at club level.
John Stones spent autumn looking the classiest English operator at the back, and now isn't in the Everton team, whereas Phil Jagielka, who had slipped down the international pecking order for Hodgson, is. Chris Smalling, a firm favourite of the 68-year-old's since their Fulham days, may be that rarity, one who seems certain to start, deserves to and is actually fit.
But consider the midfield maelstrom. When Gerrard retired from international football, it seemed Hodgson's plans were built around Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson. The Arsenal man has not even taken the field this campaign and the Liverpool captain has had an underwhelming season. Now the most impressive anchorman is Eric Dier, whose rise has been sufficiently swift that he has never taken the field for his country in competitive football. Yet whereas Wilshere's game is based more on passing, Dier's is focused on positional discipline. He is no like-for-like replacement.
Look at the fortunes of other diligent, industrious types Hodgson likes and around whom his strategies have seemed based. James Milner has been a regular for Liverpool, albeit in a variety of positions, but Fabian Delph and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have begun just 14 league matches between them in stop-start campaigns. Both are sidelined again. Their probable places in France will come as a result of loyalty and past service but it is harder to name either in a putative starting 11.
In contrast, Danny Drinkwater has surged into the squad while others have been hurt. Drinkwater would command a place in any team chosen on form. So, too would both Dele Alli and Ross Barkley, which poses a problem in the sense that each is best off as a No. 10 -- which, in turn, impacts Rooney and prevents England from picking a second striker. Just when Barkley seemed the fast-improving player who could become Hodgson's catalytic creator, the precocious Tottenham teenager surged past the Evertonian. Perhaps both can be accommodated, but it would involve an element of compromise.
At least it is an enviable choice. Hodgson has a surfeit of options in the centre and a shortage on the flanks, given that Theo Walcott and Raheem Sterling have relapsed of late and have spent much of recent matches on the bench. The Manchester City man is another withdrawal and Walcott apart, the closest thing to a natural wide man in the party is Adam Lallana, a constant for Hodgson but one who, until his recent revival and others' various struggles, scarcely seemed to merit a place on the plane.
It means the numbers of possible permutations at this stage, which may be in double or even single figures for some countries, ranks in the hundreds, if not thousands, for England. Very few would pick the same 11 as each other, let alone an identical 23. A personal pick for the summer would be: Hart; Clyne, Stones, Smalling, Shaw/Baines; Dier; Alli, Milner; Barkley; Kane, Sturridge. Yet, beyond that improbability that it will prove the team Hodgson picks, the only thing that can be safely said is that virtually everyone else would select a different side.
Richard Jolly is a football writer for ESPN, The Guardian, The National, The Observer, the Straits Times and the Sunday Express.