It seems safe to assume that, despite the lacklustre showing in the goalless draw with Ireland in Dublin, Roy Hodgson will pick something close to that side for the game in Ljubljana. He is wedded now to the 4-3-3 and, while he may prefer to have Michael Carrick at the back of midfield, Jack Wilshere played there in the early qualifiers. With Jordan Henderson to the right, the main question is whether James Milner or Fabian Delph operates to the left.
There are questions as well about the make-up of the front three, with Danny Welbeck a slight injury doubt and Raheem Sterling out of sorts. Wayne Rooney will almost certainly play through the middle but, particularly after Adam Lallana’s unconvincing display against Ireland, there could be an opportunity for an in-form Theo Walcott. Slovenia have no major injury concerns, while Josip Ilicic is back in the squad after being dropped by the coach Srecko Katanec in the autumn.
Since Hodgson returned to the familiar 4-3-3 after the World Cup, his side is unbeaten, following seven straight wins with draws away to Italy and Ireland. The opposition may not have been especially taxing, and England may not have played scintillating football, but in qualifying it hardly matters and, against sides whose main aim is to prevent England playing their main strength, operating on the counter, hardly comes into play.
Slovenia have shown distinct improvement since Katanec’s return and have won their last four home matches without conceding. They lie six points behind England in the group, level with Switzerland. When the sides met at Wembley in November, England had much the better of it, failed to create many chances, went behind to a Henderson own goal and then came back to win 3-1.
A PROPER TEST
This will probably be England’s first genuine test since the win in Switzerland with which they began the qualifying campaign, but to an extent that may suit them. Katanec tends to conservatism, but if Slovenia do come out and leave space behind them, England have the pace through Sterling, Welbeck or Walcott to take advantage. At least at first, though, the probability is that Slovenia will sit deep and look to play long balls towards Milivoje Novakovic.
THE ILICIC FACTOR
Ilicic is, without much doubt, Slovenia’s most skilful outfield player. Katanec has a history of falling out with his stars – he did so with Zlatko Zahovic when Slovenia manager during the 2002 World Cup and again with Goran Pandev when manager of Macedonia FYR – and leaving Ilicic out of the squad last November suggested a similar issue.
The Fiorentina playmaker is back, though, and played in the 6-0 win over San Marino in March. He will probably be used as a second striker behind Novakovic, which presents a major challenge of Wilshere’s defensive abilities, assuming he is chosen to play at the back of midfield by Hodgson. Ilicic could thrive against a player who is not naturally defensively minded.
Compact as Slovenia look to be in midfield, they do possess two wide players of genuine ability in Valter Birsa and Andraz Kirm. They will essentially be shuttling players, used to try to prevent England’s full-backs – presumably Nathaniel Clyne and Ryan Bertrand - from getting forward, but if England lose possession with one or other full-back caught high up the pitch, they could cause problems. Certainly early on, given the state of the group, it probably makes sense of England to be cautious.
June matches always seem like unwelcome addenda to the season. Players are exhausted and seeing a rest. England have won one and drawn five of their last six non-competition matches in June, and another drawn feels likely here.
Six points clear in the group, this is England’s hardest remaining fixture, and a draw would probably be quite welcome. Slovenia, similarly, might like a draw that would at least be better than the result Switzerland, their rivals for second, achieved at home against England. Both sides are managed by coaches who are instinctively conservative, while two of England’s three probable starting forwards are either returning form injury or out of form, so rather than backing a draw outright at 3.40, the best thing to do may be to back both 0-0 at 8.00 and 1-1 at 6.75.