Player Focus: Which left-backs deserve a spot in Hodgson's next England squad?
With the first set of international fixtures of the calendar year fast approaching, Roy Hodgson’s focus has largely been on the strikers at his disposal. Harry Kane, Charlie Austin, Saido Berahino and Danny Ings are all vying for a place in the England squad that will face Lithuania and Italy. Given Daniel Sturridge, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck are somewhat dead certs, Hodgson has a tough decision to make on the frontmen he calls on later this month.
However, there’s another position that Hodgson must make a choice on. Ashley Cole’s international retirement last summer all but confirmed Leighton Baines as England’s first choice left-back, with Luke Shaw his understudy at the 2014 World Cup. Shaw’s big-money move to Manchester United has not panned out as expected, though, with injuries hindering his initial impact at Old Trafford.
With that in mind, a host of English left-backs will feel confident of securing a spot in the upcoming squad following a series of impressive performances for their respective teams in recent months. Kieran Gibbs, Danny Rose, Ryan Bertrand and Aaron Cresswell, along with Baines and, to a lesser extent, Shaw, have all shown enough to warrant a place in Hodgson's thoughts.
Baines is perhaps the only player in this position that is guaranteed a spot in the squad. In what has been a wholly underwhelming Everton season, the 30-year-old still manages to excel. His WhoScored rating (7.19) is better than every other Toffees player this term, while only Cesc Fàbregas (15) has registered more Premier League assists than Baines (8). The experienced defender offers a creative threat from deep, which is essential for the modern day full-back. Given Hodgson is likely to persist with a narrow 4-3-1-2 formation that served him well towards the end of 2014, Baines’ inclination to press forward at any given opportunity benefits the national side.
That being said, Baines is not the only left-back capable of offering this offensive threat from deep and with Everton star now 30 years of age, the upcoming fixtures are the opportune time for Hodgson to experiment. Shaw’s dip in form - his WhoScored rating has dropped from 7.16 last season to 6.80 - opens up the possibility for a Premier League rival to leapfrog him in the pecking order. Both Rose and Cresswell have 4 league assists to their name, though it is perhaps the former who would have the upper hand in the quest to usurp Shaw.
Tottenham's fans would have envisaged summer signing Ben Davies becoming their starting left-back. Rose was first choice at the beginning of the season, though between the end of November and December, Davies gained a starting spot in the Spurs XI. However, Rose has worked his way back into the side, so much so that his WhoScored rating since the turn of the year (7.45) ranks among the top English players in 2015. His 2 league goals this season have come against Chelsea and West Ham, suggesting he steps up to the big occasion when required. His previous international experience also stands him in better stead.
There is also a case for Cresswell, who has perhaps done enough to warrant a place in the squad. The West Ham left-back has performed admirably for the Hammers since arriving from Championship side Ipswich. Statistically calculated WhoScored strengths of ‘key passes’ and ‘crossing’ indicate that the 25-year-old carries the necessary attacking threat from wide for England.
However, his lack of playing time in the top-flight counts against him. Cresswell has impressed in his debut Premier League campaign, of that there is no doubt, but making the step up to international football could possibly prove a bridge too far. Should Cresswell maintain his form, Hodgson would be wise to keep a close eye on his progress between now and the end of the season, but the March internationals may come too soon for the West Ham full-back.
Cresswell would likely find himself behind Gibbs and Bertrand in the race for an England place, either way. Both have impressed this season, and have previously been capped for the national team, which aids their cause in their respective bids to return to the England team. Gibbs may be in regular competition for a starting spot with Nacho Monreal, but the Englishman’s display in Arsenal’s recent 2-1 win at QPR will not have done his chances of a recall to the national team any harm.
Gibbs registered the assist for Alexis Sánchez’s second half goal, while his overall performance saw him receive the WhoScored man of the match award with a rating of 9.21, gaining him a place in WhoScored's latest European team of the week. Gibbs’ average of 2.3 interceptions ranks among the top 25 players in the Premier League this season and is the best of all English full-backs. His reading of the game would help England instigate swift counter attacks and given he has 3 assists to his name, he can support, or even lead offensive breaks when handed the opportunity to do so.
Bertrand, meanwhile, performed admirably following his loan move to Saints last summer, so much so that they decided to make his move permanent during the January transfer window. 2 goals and 2 assists shows he’s capable of getting forward when needed, while an average of 41.9 passes per league game hints that he favours a more patient approach to attacking rather than adopt a more direct style of play, which is crucial on the international stage, where the onus is on retaining possession and probing the opposition.
Strikers are undeniably the glamour players of the game as they score the goals to win games. Which forwards Hodgson selects will dominate the back pages over the coming days, but it’s also in defence that the 67-year-old has decisions to make.
Baines is likely to be selected and deservedly so given his performances for Everton, but the England boss has plenty of options when it comes to his backup and potential long-term successor at left-back. Using WhoScored's unique rating system, it's Rose who should receive international recognition this month, though Hodgson has ample competition in this position, which is a selection headache he will likely welcome.