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.

source: Getty Images
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?

 

 

 

Burnley’s Barnes: “Can we finish the season now?”

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Ashley Barnes broke his season duck in classy fashion, scoring and adding an assist as Burnley stayed in the thick of the race for Europe with a 2-0 win over Swansea City at Turf Moor on Saturday.

[ RECAP: Burnley 2-0 Swans ]

The win shouldn’t be a surprise, as Burnley is humming in style. The Clarets entered the day with a win at Chelsea and draws at Liverpool and Spurs, so why would a visit from Swansea lead to anything than three points.

It’s dream world, really.

From the BBC:

“We’re on a fantastic run. We’re working hard every day and today we were different class.

“Can we finish the season now? No, I’m kidding. there’s still a long way to go and we need to pick up as many points as possible.”

Every win makes more and more believers of the Burnley Football Club. Perhaps more important to the Clarets, each win makes it less likely that Sean Dyche will leave the club for a better gig (Everton), at least right now.

Crystal Palace 2-2 Everton: Toffees battle back for point

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  • Eagles took lead through McArthur, Zaha
  • Baines, Niasse equalized
  • Palace remain bottom of PL table

Crystal Palace and Everton played out an entertaining 2-2 draw at Selhurst Park on Saturday.

The Eagles twice took the lead in a wild first half with James McArthur giving Palace the lead less than a minute in but Leighton Baines soon equalized from the penalty spot. Wilfried Zaha made it 2-1 but Oumar Niasse equalized right on half time and it finished 2-2 after a tense second half.

With the point Palace stay bottom of the table on five points, while Everton are in 16th place on 12 points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

A rapid start to the game saw Palace take the lead with just 51 seconds on the clock.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek‘s shot was saved by Jordan Pickford but McArthur was on hand to tap home and give the Eagles an early lead.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Soon after Everton were level as Oumar Niasse went down under Scott Dann‘s challenge in the box and Baines smashed home the spot kick. 1-1 with less than seven minutes in.

10 minutes before half time Palace retook the lead as Joel Ward’s cross found Zaha and his flick beat Pickford to make it 2-1. Just when it looked like Palace would lead at half time, Everton leveled.

Julian Speroni had a howler as he gave the ball straight to Idrissa Gana Gueye who played it to Gylfi Sigurdsson who put it on a plate for Niasse to make it 2-2. The Senegalese forward came so close to joining Palace on Transfer Deadline Day back in the summer and came back to haunt them.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ] 

A tense second half saw plenty of players booked in the rain in south London as Palace pushed hard for the winner with Loftus-Cheek going close but Everton’s defense held firm.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Late on Christian Benteke, on his long-awaited return from injury, also went close for Palace but the game ended even at Selhurst.

WATCH LIVE: Manchester United vs. Newcastle United

Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images
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Paul Pogba returns for Manchester United, who welcomes Newcastle United to Old Trafford on Saturday (Watch live at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Zlatan Ibrahimovic makes the bench for the Red Devils, which also has Ander Herrera and Jesse Lingard as options.

Rafa Benitez will look to best his old nemesis with Dwight Gayle and Joselu up top.

LINEUPS

Manchester United: De Gea; Valencia, Lindelof, Smalling, Young, Matic, Pogba, Mata, Rashford, Martial, Lukaku. Subs: Romero, Rojo, Shaw, Fellaini, Herrera, Lingard, Ibrahimovic.

Newcastle United: Elliot; Yedlin, Lejeune, Clark, Manquillo; Ritchie, Hayden, Shelvey, Murphy; Gayle, Joselu. Subs: Darlow, Gamez, Mbemba, Diame, Aarons, Perez, Mitrovic.

Burnley 2-0 Swansea City: Clarets stay hot

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  • 29 total shot attempts
  • Cork scores
  • Barnes goal, assist

Ashley Barnes and Jack Cork scored to lead Burnley to a 2-0 win over visiting Swansea City at Turf Moor on Saturday.

Barnes also had an assist as the Clarets kept pace with the Top Four chasers. With 22 points, Burnley is a point back of fourth and seven clear of eighth.

Swansea remains in the drop zone, with eight points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Cork’s fine week continued following his England call-up, and he bested his old club to open the scoring, starting a move that Ashley Barnes and Robbie Brady advanced for Cork to head home from six yards. 1-0.

Barnes turned scorer for Burnley’s second, hammering a 19-yard ball past Lukasz Fabianski to make it 2-0.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]