On the last Match of the Day of the season, the advertisement for this year's Euro 2012 for England was that "expectations have never been lower." For once, Match of the Day seems to be right. Usually, the English media goes into an international competition with guns blazing; "England will surely win it" claim most pundits. This summer, though, there isn't that feeling (although, if England were to play very well against a solid Belgium side, there may be more excitement). The manager who led England through qualifying, and to a highly impressive 1-0 victory against Spain, Fabio Capello, is gone.
He's been replaced by Roy Hodgson, a man who is an excellent coach, someone who should be able to build England sides from the youth levels that will be at the new National headquarters. There is, however, an underwhelming feeling about Roy Hodgson, undoubtedly fueled by his awful time at Liverpool. Compared with Harry Redknapp, though, he was a far superior candidate, and could get England to play in a way that could see them progress further than expected in the tournament. Certainly, Hodgson's emphasis on shape and structure won't lead England to playing open, expansive football, but it could be football that could wins the Euros; Denmark and Greece, of course, won the Euros playing defensive football, and, defensive football seems to best fit the players available to Hodgson.
The key to any Hodgson side is organization; it's what kept his West Bromwich Albion up two seasons ago and brought them to a respectable finish this season, and organization and a strong team unit saw Greece unexpectedly win the Euros in 2004. It also featured in Chelsea's Champions League victory, and three of Chelsea's defensivemen should feature in the England back four: Ashley Cole, John Terry and Gary Cahill. England's defense is probably the strongest part of its team; Joe Hart is one of the best goalkeepers in the Premiership, Cole, Cahill and Terry were instrumental in keeping a clean sheet against Barcelona in the first leg of the semi-final, and, unlike in 2010, the squad players are strong too; Joleon Lescott was excellent for Manchester City, and Phil Jagielka is a strong player. There are question marks at right back: Phil Jones has underwhelmed there for club and country, as has Glen Johnson, while Micah Richards was inexplicably left in England.
In midfield, Scott Parker and Frank Lampard should form a midfield pairing (ed - they won't, as Lampard's now been ruled out of the competition with a thigh injury), while Steven Gerrard will play as the '1' in Hodgson's 4-4-1-1. Lampard excelled for Chelsea in a deeper role, showing good positioning and long-range passing ability. The concern for England will be that without the injured Gareth Barry, or the now seemingly retired Michael Carrick, they don't have a partner for Lampard who can hold position and protect the back four. Scott Parker seems to have the same affliction as every other England midfielder: He's better in a box-to-box role than he is as a holding midfielder. That'll be a concern for Hodgson, especially if England come up against teams who can pass their way through, like France in the group stage, or a potential meeting with Spain if England were to reach the latter stages of the competition. Should Lampard miss out through injury, Jordan Henderson will be called up to replace him in the squad. A more likely replacement in midfield, though, will be James Milner, a very versatile player who does better in the middle than he does out wide. Other options include Gerrard, but his partnership with Parker last weekend didn't look great. Phil Jones or Phil Jagielka have both played in midfield before, but without Lampard, England's best distributor, a partnership of Jones or Jagielka with Parker would further damage England's ball retaining ability.
Hodgson has a plethora of wingers to choose from, but none really catch the eye. Theo Walcott is better in a higher role than the role he'll presumably play for England, and he's also better with a striker like Robin van Persie, a man who has brought the best out of Walcott. It's hard to see Andy Carroll doing the same, so perhaps Milner will start on the right hand side, to provide crosses. Despite having no goals or assists in the Premier League, Stewart Downing was called up, and handed the No. 19 shirt; England fans will be hoping that means he's on the bench and not starting. Ashley Young, who linked up well with Carroll against Norway, will probably start on the left hand side or in the centre. Without Wayne Rooney, Young is England's best bet to unlock a defense through pace and trickery, and he should bear the brunt of England's creative play. Luckily for him, he can come inside and allow Ashley Cole to come forward to try to provide width.
Without Wayne Rooney, England will have a hard time scoring goals. Andy Carroll is not a great finisher, and while he holds the ball up well, it might not be enough. Danny Welbeck should be the starter in the absence of Rooney; he can hold the ball up well, and can link up with Young and Gerrard, but he's suffering from injury and might not be a guaranteed starter. The most exciting player is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain; the Arsenal youngster has the ability to play through the middle or out wide, and while he might not start, he can be an impact sub with his ability to beat players and cross well.
Hodgson's side will be organized and will look to deny opponents space. They should be able to defend well enough to get out of the group and perhaps make a run; the problem will be scoring from open play; England cannot rely exclusively on set pieces.
Projected lineup (4-4-1-1)
GK Joe Hart LB Ashley Cole CB John Terry CB Gary Cahill RB Glenn Johnson LM Stewart Downing CM Steven Gerrard CM Scott Parker RM Theo Walcott AM Ashley Young CF Andy Carroll or Danny Welbeck
Ashley Young: The winger became better as the season went on for Manchester United, and he'll be England's key man in the absence of Rooney. He's showed the ability to play through the middle and unlock defenses either with through balls or with crosses for club and country, and England will be reliant on his pace on the counter attack to release Welbeck or Carroll, Gerrard and Walcott. If England are going to beat Sweden or France, they'll need Young to be at his best, or hope for something on a set piece.
Quarter Finals: England's group is tough, but manageable. France showed that they're vulnerable to the counter attack, and although Ukraine are the hosts, they're a team England should be able to beat. England have a strong history of not beating Sweden, once in 46 years, and with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden could be a banana skin for England. They should get out of the group, and will have a rested Wayne Rooney for the quarter final, but probably won't beat Spain. Spain have the players to exploit England's weakness in the midfield, and should beat them, though it should be closer than some expect.