Roy Hodgson’s starting XI against Italy – combinations and permutations

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In the weathered hands of England manager Roy Hodgson rests a seemingly infinite number of combinations and permutations from which to pluck a starting XI for the World Cup opener against Italy on Saturday.

Attack is where the discrepancy lives. Joe Hart will start in goal, Leighton Baines, Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka and Glen Johnson will be the starting back four, and Steven Gerrard has locked down one of the central midfield spots.

That much we know. But from there on forward, things get sticky.

The general issue is whether Hodgson will go aggressive and deploy a diamond midfield behind two strikers or whether he’ll opt for the balance of a 4-2-3-1, utilizing two holding players behind three attacking midfielders and a lone striker. But formation is only one component of Hodgson’s prescription. A considerably larger concern is one of personnel and with a number of talented young stallions at his disposal, the England manager has some very difficult decisions to make.

So let’s take a look at a few different setups Hodgson has available to roll out against the Azzurri.

THE TASTE OF LIVERPOOL

The most talked about formation for England, the 4-4-2 diamond midfield, happens to be the same shape Liverpool used to claim second place in the past season’s Premier League. Brendan Rodgers perfected this setup with a rotating group of midfielders but always present in the bunch was Gerrard, at the fulcrum, and Raheem Sterling, in any one of the three advanced roles. Proving himself capable of opening defenses up from the left or right side, Sterling’s game rose to a new level late in the season when Rodgers inserted him into the center of the pitch where his quickness and evasive nature proved too much for stiff-legged central defenders.

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Adam Lallana looks poised to exchange his Southampton shirt for a Liverpool kit.

Another key to the diamond midfield is balance, which is achieved through utilizing fit outside midfielders who have no issue playing both sides of the ball. And there’s no better man for that job than Jordan Henderson, who makes 90 minutes of sprinting look like a walk in the park.

A fellow Liverpool player, Henderson has an intimate understanding of Gerrard and Sterling as well as how to correctly use the diamond shape to his advantage. Henderson’s ability to drop deep, at times even alongside Gerrard, allows Hodgson to select a fourth member of the midfield with slightly more aggressive tendencies.

And who better for that role than Adam Lallana, the $34-42M transfer target of Liverpool, who looks primed to join the Reds by the end of July? The 26-year-old excelled on the left side for Southampton this past year, is not opposed to running himself ragged for 70 odd minutes and provides devastating trickery to compliment that of Sterling.

Opting for a four man midfield with Liverpool connections may feel biased but it’s a proven commodity that sparks goals. Factor in the Daniel Sturridge connection up top and this feels like a balanced yet aggressive lineup for Hodgson to utilize in the event he truly desires to take the game to Italy.

THE (ROONEY-LESS?) YOUTH BLITZ

If Hodgson really wants to throw a curveball at Italy he’ll unleash the youth, likely in a 4-2-3-1, which provides a bit more protection than the diamond. The youth setup would partner 22-year-old Jack Wilshere alongside Gerrard in what would be a clever pivot. Wilshere’s love for the tackle compliments that of Gerrard while the Arsenal man’s knack for creating off-the-dribble would provide a key link between the attacking midfielders and the striker.

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Many pundits feel Wayne Rooney’s starting spot could be in jeopardy. Will Hodgson pull the plug?

In front of Gerrard and Wilshere would be 19-year-old Sterling on the left wing, 20-year-old Ross Barkley in the central attacking role and, ideally, 20-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right wing. The obvious issue currently facing this system is that Oxlade-Chamberlain is nursing a knee issue that may keep him out against Italy. While his speed and two directional play would devastate and provide balance to this shape he’d be well deputized by Henderson or Danny Welbeck, who would then swap sides with Sterling.

One downside of a youth blitz in a 4-2-3-1 is that Wayne Rooney may be the odd man out. It’s a predicament many pundits believe Hodgson may be inclined to move forward with given the United man’s sub-par Premier League season and poor World Cup history. That said, charging forward without Rooney in the starting lineup feels like a titanic miss and one that Hodgson would be wise to avoid risking. Instead, Hodgson could push forward with a youth blitz and Rooney, who could partner with Sturridge in front of a diamond midfield made up of Gerrard, Sterling, Barkley and Ox/Henderson/Welbeck/Wilshere.

Regardless of using a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 diamond, the key to the youth blitz would be giving England fans that which they fiend for the most: Sterling alongside Barkley in what would be a freakishly athletic, skillful and audacious pair that few opposing defenses, including the Italians, would be equipped to handle.

THE RUNNING MAN

As we know by now, heat and humidity will play a large role in this World Cup meaning many a match will come down to a battle of the fittest. And no venue will provide a greater challenge of the conditions than the sweltering jungle of Manaus, where England faces Italy. To hedge against those conditions, don’t be surprised if Hodgson opts for an attacking group of running men, which means James Milner becomes a real possibility to start.

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James Milner’s third lung may be enough to get him into Roy Hodgson’s starting XI.

The City man is as fit as the come. Inserting him on the right side along with Gerrard in the fulcrum, the inexhaustible Henderson on the left, and Sterling at the point of a diamond midfield could prove a very wise play.

If Hodgson opts for a 4-2-3-1, Rooney could drop into the attacking midfield role, Sterling to the bench and Wilshere alongside Gerrard.

It’s a lineup that would allow England to put Italy under pressure and bring veteran leadership into the side. While not the most exciting play, Milner’s work rate could break down Italy’s left side for a sub like Sterling or Oxlade-Chamberlain to then capitalize.

THE OLD GUARD

The most conservative and downright uninspiring attack Hodgson could play would be to pair Gerrard with Milner and Frank Lampard.

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Frank Lampard can play a role for England in the World Cup, hopefully just not as a starter.

Whether in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 and regardless of who is played on the left side, such a lineup would reek of a lack of ambition and spell doom for England.

Fortunately, while such a makeup could have been foreseeable under Fabio Capello’s tenure as manager, it seems unlikely that Hodgson would revert to such a level of conservative tactics. There is a freshness about this England squad that is just begging to be unleashed on the world.

What better stage to make it happen than to kickoff Brazil 2014?

 

 

 

Injury update as Premier League returns

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With the international break over and 10 Premier League games coming your way this weekend, there is plenty of injury news to catch up on.

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Below we take a look at some of the key injury updates from across the PL.


Arsenal
Petr Cech is out with calf injury he suffered against West Brom but could return next weekend
Lucas Perez is out with a thigh injury
Santi Cazorla is out for the rest of the season after undergoing surgery on his injured Achilles

Burnley
Steven Defour is available and could start against Tottenham Hotspur

Chelsea
Eden Hazard was seen taken part in full training session after missing the win at Stoke, plus Belgium’s games on international duty, with a thigh injury

Everton
Seamus Coleman is having surgery on two broken bones in his right leg as the Toffees’ right back will be out until next season
Ramiro Funes Muri is also out for the rest of the season after suffering a knee injury with Argentina on international duty
James McCarthy has once again been injured while on international duty with Ireland, reportedly leaving Ronald Koeman fuming

Liverpool
Adam Lallana is out for the next four weeks with a thigh injury he picked up on England duty
Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino will be checked up on after the duo flew back to Liverpool on a private jet on Wednesday following their displays for Brazil in World Cup qualifiers

Manchester City
Bacary Sagna suffered a tear in his adductor while on international duty with France
Kevin De Bruyne did not feature for Belgium after suffering a groin injury and is doubtful

Manchester United
Paul Pogba is out with a hamstring injury
Chris Smalling is missing with a knee injury he picked up when playing for England
Phil Jones is out with a toe injury suffered on international duty
Antonio Valencia and Marcos Rojo have both returned late from international duty and will be assessed

Southampton
Manolo Gabbiadini will not play against Bournemouth after picking up a groin injury against Tottenham two weeks ago
Virgil Van Dijk may well be out for the season as he continues to recover from an ankle injury he picked up in January

Tottenham Hotspur
Harry Kane is back working on the training pitch after his ankle injury and is ahead of schedule. Reports state he may be back on April 22
Danny Rose will see a specialist about his knee ligament injury but he is not expected to return until late April at the earliest
Erik Lamela is out for the season

Sanchez: “I’d like to stay in London… but with a team that wins”

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Alexis Sanchez may have some explaining to do when he arrives back at Arsenal…

[ MORE: Sanchez, Ozil to stay?

The Chilean forward starred for Chile on international duty, scoring and grabbing an assist in their 3-1 win over Venezuela to get their World Cup qualifying campaign back on track.

He also spoke to Chilean media outlet Publimetro and is quoted as saying the following about his future as he has just 15 months left on his current contract at Arsenal.

“I am happy in London and hope to finish my contract there,” Sanchez said. “I’d like to stay in the city but with a team that is winning things, that has a winning mentality. I’m 28 years old, I still have a lot of years ahead of me. I am a player who looks after himself.”

With Chelsea linked heavily with a move for Sanchez this week, those comments will fuel the fire further that Arsenal’s leading scorer could cross England’s capital this summer and the Gunners could lose yet another top talent to a direct Premier League rival (see: Van Persie, Robin. Cole, Ashley and Nasri, Samir).

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Arsene Wenger responded to Sanchez’s reported comments in a light-hearted manner as he revealed that he believes both Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, who also has just 15 months to run on his current deal too, want to stay at Arsenal.

“In a positive way, there’s only one team in London, so he’s happy,” Wenger smiled. “He wants to win the championship, that’s what everybody wants. You have to be cautious when they give interviews in their home country. The interpretation is not always correct.”

“I have not a lot to add. I think he’s happy here. We have not extended his contract, I hope he will stay at the club. It happened before when we had to sell our best players. But that’s not the case any more. He has one and half years contract. I don’t think it is an immediate concern for Arsenal.”

So, Sanchez’s comments may have been lost in translation a little but it is intriguing to decipher what he’s saying as this whole game of cat and mouse plays out. Wenger has said that contract talks regarding Ozil and Sanchez will not happen until the season is over and that means the duo will have just one year left on their deals when they sit down to discuss a huge raise.

With Arsenal also having another eight players out of contract in 2018 there could be a huge rebuild on the way at the Emirates with or without Wenger. There’s no doubting Sanchez is the best player Arsenal have with Inter Milan, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Juventus all linked with him and the fact he’s won one FA Cup in his three previous seasons with the Gunners obviously isn’t enough success for a player who seems to have an insatiable hunger for success.

If Sanchez does leave then that could be the signal for several other stars to move on too.

Mourinho gives update on Ibrahimovic, Neymar

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Jose Mourinho cut to the chase when asked about two superstars.

[ MORE: Ozil, Sanchez to stay at Arsenal? ]

Ahead of Manchester United’s clash with West Bromwich Albion on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com) Mourinho has been talking about a potential $217 million move for Barcelona’s Neymar this summer, plus the future of Zlatan Ibrahimovic as United’s top goalscorer revealed on Wednesday he’s in talks about extending his contract for another season. 

First up, speaking to ESPN Brazil Mourinho responded to reports claiming he had been in touch with Barcelona and Neymar’s representatives about a move for the Brazil superstar.

“It’s speculation. I always try to be objective and pragmatic with clubs and to ask them what they can give me. To ask for Neymar is absurd. A club like Barcelona cannot and will not lose Neymar,” Mourinho said. “Although Lionel Messi is still a young player with years ahead of him, he’s almost 30, and Neymar will be the great player of Barcelona post-Messi. So much that I think it is like trying to break into a safe – impossible.”

In a separate interview with Sky Sports, Mourinho revealed he will put no pressure on Ibrahimovic to stay at United for another season and will support him no matter what.

“I am just calm and waiting for the decision,” Mourinho said. “If the decision is for him to stay and he is happy with that, we are delighted with that. If his decision is to leave and try to find a different challenge, I will be also happy for him. He is [a big part of our success this season] but the human being is more important than the player and the team. If his decision is to leave and try to be happy with his family and have a different reality, so be it.”

What should we make of all this? It’s just Mourinho being Mourinho.

He’s not getting people’s hopes up about Neymar arriving at Old Trafford but if there’s a slither of a chance that could happen, you can bet your bottom dollar Mourinho will try to push it through. Neymar’s incredible release clause of $217 million would have to be met with the biggest wages on the planet (he only signed a new five-year deal at Barca in October) and although United could afford that will Barca really let him leave the Nou Camp after grooming him to be Messi’s successor?

As for Ibrahimovic, the 35-year-old Swedish striker has scored 26 goals in 41 appearances for United this season and although his deal runs out this summer he has a clause which can trigger an extra year. Reports suggest he has an offer from the LA Galaxy waiting for him but if Ibra leads United to the UEFA Champions League next season can you really see him not having one last crack at winning major titles in the Premier League and Europe? Probs not.

Wenger says Ozil, Sanchez want to stay at Arsenal

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Arsene Wenger has being discussing the situation regarding Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil at Arsenal.

[ MORE: Sanchez to Chelsea? ]

Speaking to the media ahead of Arsenal’s clash with Manchester City on Sunday (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) at the Emirates Stadium, Wenger is hopeful his star duo will both remain with the Gunners beyond this summer.

Both Sanchez and Ozil are contracted to Arsenal until the summer of 2018 but are yet to agree a new deal and talks will not begin until the end of the current season.

Wenger isn’t too concerned despite Sanchez being linked with plenty of the biggest clubs on the planet.

“I personally believe both of them want to stay. I hope the club will find an agreement with them,” Wenger said.

Asked about his own future, Wenger had no update about reports suggesting he was about to sign a new two-year contract extension. That was despite saying before the international break that he would reveal his decision soon.

“It’s a subject that at the moment it is not sorted completely out,” Wenger said. “I’m very clear in my mind. Do I stay two months or two years? My commitment will be exactly the same all the time. It does not influence my attitude.”

So, Wenger is standing firm and did not want to get into any details regarding his own future as his current deal runs out in the summer.

However, the fact he said it is “not sorted completely out” suggests that talks are ongoing and that would also seem to point towards Wenger staying on after 20 years in charge.

There’s no doubt that this situation rumbling on has impacted Wenger’s team in recent weeks as Arsenal crashed out of the UEFA Champions League 10-2 on aggregate to Bayern Munich and have also lost four of their last five Premier League games.

Bagging a big win this weekend against City would significantly boost Arsenal’s hopes of finishing in the top four but perhaps everyone connected with Arsenal is more eager to have Wenger’s future sorted and then everything else will slot into place.