Although we are still embroiled in a the excitement of a nerve-biting title race, it will not be long before this season is consigned to the record books and our attention turns instead to the World Cup Finals in Brazil. England have qualified for this year’s biggest football event but for the first time, our hopes are being tinged with a healthy dose of realism.
Unlike the well-meant but generally over-flattering contention that England have a chance of doing well in the finals, most experts tend to agree that this summer will be a learning process for the England team. England manager Roy Hodgson goes into this event with expectation for him and his team at arguably the lowest, and most realistic, level for decades.
Most England managers head off to a major tournament with jingoistic calls for world domination echoing in their ears, which seems to weigh like a millstone around the neck of him and his team.
Expectations this time around are much lower. Most fans tend to realise that England are a top 15 international team, perhaps top 10 at their best. Regardless of what the ridiculous FIFA World Rankings may state.
Yet in our group at this summer’s World Cup, we’ll be facing two teams who are most definitely top ten calibre, Uruguay and Italy.
As such, expectation is lower, there is a general acceptance that we may be seeing our team home after the group stage this time around and that anything beyond this should be looked at as a bonus.
It is a somewhat surreal situation for an England manager to have entered the job with such low national expectations. Let’s just hope Roy Hodgson doesn’t do his utmost to ensure they are met.
Personally, I believe that Roy Hodgson’s eventual 23-man squad will tell us all we need to know about what Hodgson’s plans are for his team.
My view is that a squad picked to progress will feature several more experienced players at the expense of younger players. I’d expect Ashley Cole to perhaps get the nod for one of the left back slots, Frank Lampard in one of the midfield and perhaps Jermain Defoe in attack.
Against top class sides like Uruguay and Italy, such experience of playing at the top level is vital, but I am not convinced that this is the way Hodgson should be thinking especially as the majority of betting websites have England as 3rd favourites to win the group (odds of 9/4) and 3rd favourites to qualify from the group (odds of 8/13).
I don’t see how taking this trio of players will benefit the England team long term. It may gain us a second round spot if we’re lucky, where we’ll undoubtedly bow out on penalties, but what do we gain as a nation from taking so many older players to the event?
Given that Hodgson has a free hit, he would be better advised to use this World Cup as a stepping stone for the younger players in the squad to gain much needed experience at the highest possible level. In my view, that will serve the England team far better for 2014 and beyond, than picking veteran players who are not getting a regular game for their club sides any longer.
There is another reason for this too. Some of England’s best performances in recent times have come when we have entrusted younger players on the biggest stage. In 1986, Bobby Robson dropped his current number 9, Mark Hateley, for Peter Beardsley and by chance, found the Lineker – Beardsley partnership that took England into the quarter finals.
In 1998, a young David Beckham and Michael Owen were the catalysts as Glenn Hoddle’s England progressed into the second phase, only to lose on penalties, though not before Beckham’s brilliant free kick against Colombia and Owen’s magnificent solo run against Argentina had England fans out of their seats.
In 2004, a young Wayne Rooney had English fans excited for the future after scoring four goals during the Euro 2004 tournament in Portugal before once again, we were sent packing on penalties.
Yet when we have picked more experienced squads for major finals, such as in 2010 and 2012, the performances were generally poor, lacklustre and lacking in a key ingredient, pace.
This is something that the new crop of England stars do have in abundance, especially when considering some of the exciting options in midfield and attack. They may lack the experience of Lampard, Cole and Defoe, but this is the perfect opportunity to gift them these experiences at a major tournament.
So with that in mind, I’d be very happy if Roy Hodgson were to announce a squad along the following lines.
Goalkeepers – Joe Hart (Manchester City), Ben Foster (WBA), John Ruddy (Norwich City)
The only decision to be made here in my view is whether Fraser Forster of Celtic deserves a spot. Given that he has approximately 5 shots a season to save for Celtic, I’d prefer players who do see regular action and behind the defences of West Brom and Norwich City, Foster and Ruddy certainly get that.
Right Backs – Glen Johnson (Liverpool), Kyle Walker (Tottenham)
Johnson’s had a fine season for Liverpool and he’ll likely be Hodgson’s first choice, but I feel Walker is a better option and is also, perhaps critically, better defensively.
Left Backs – Leighton Baines (Everton), Luke Shaw (Southampton)
Ashley Cole has been arguably England’s most consistent player over the last 10 years but he isn’t playing for Chelsea and Baines and Shaw are the future of the English game at left back. Baines has earned his chance as first choice, while Shaw is an exciting back up who could also play a more advanced role, given the quality of his delivery from wide areas.
Centre Backs – Phil Jagielka (Everton), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Chris Smalling (Manchester United), Phil Jones (Manchester United)
I feel Jagielka and Cahill pick themselves at the moment, so the only question is who supports them. Two things go in Smalling and Jones favour, first is who they play for, secondly is their versatility. Jones in particular can play a number of roles. My argument against including them would be that I don’t believe they are a particularly strong pair of defenders. I think had Joleon Lescott played regularly, he would be on the plane but given his lack of game time and that Cardiff’s Steven Caulker hasn’t really done enough to warrant a place on the plane, I think Smalling and Jones will get in by default.
That said, I would like to see some young centre halves, such as West Ham’s James Tomkins, Caulker and, if fit, Liverpool’s Martin Kelly given a chance following the World Cup.
Wide Midfielders/Wingers – Andros Townsend (Tottenham), Raheem Sterling (Liverpool), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arsenal), Adam Lallana (Southampton)
In 45 caps for England, I am yet to see James Milner put in a performance that has made me sit up and take notice. He is certainly willing, but so am I, and unfortunately he has been about as effective as I would be for the English national team.
As such, I’d load the wide positions with youth and pace, not to mention a healthy dose of guile. Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling have been arguably the best young English talent to emerge in the Premier League this season and they deserve their chance. Townsend, although beset by injuries of late, was a huge plus for England in the autumn and Oxlade-Chamberlain is versatile, powerful and pacy as well as hugely talented. With Theo Walcott injured, I feel these four would offer a far better alternative than the likes of Ashley Young, James Milner or Aaron Lennon.
Central Midfielders – Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Jack Wilshere (Arsenal), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Ross Barkley (Everton)
I have opted for 8 midfielders in total partly because some of these players (Sterling, Oxlade- Chamberlain and Townsend) can operate in more advanced roles as part of a 4-3-3 formation but also because given Gerrard’s age, and the likely conditions in Brazil, I feel we may need cover for the skipper.
I don’t see how taking the likes of Lampard, Cleverley or Carrick would benefit the squad, whereas this younger squad has proven itself over the course of the season and has both pace and power in abundance, something that we’ve lacked in the England team in midfield of late.
Gerrard’s role will be pivotal in the ‘quarterback’ role that Pirlo played so well for Italy in the 2012 European Championships, if Gerrard can perform for England like he has for Liverpool this season, then who knows, perhaps he could spring as big a surprise on the international scene as Liverpool have on the domestic.
Attackers – Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool), Danny Welbeck (Manchester United), Rickie Lambert (Southampton)
Rooney and Sturridge are certainties to go to Brazil and Welbeck’s ability to influence games either from wide areas, or from the bench makes him, I feel a valuable and perhaps undervalued player in the England and Manchester United squad. The final place I feel would go to Rickie Lambert, who I think has performed superbly in his four caps so far and whose aerial threat would be a real problem for teams. Plus, he is a far more robust player than Andy Carroll, who has only played less than half a season for West Ham.
And one other key thing, Lambert can take penalties too. Which given our past record, may just be a useful asset to have in the squad.
Will Roy be brave enough to pick a squad as young and inexperienced as this? Who knows, but for the future of English football, I hope he does. We’ve nothing to lose and a lot to gain.