As an American Arsenal fan, England’s national team hasn’t always been of particular interest to me. My level of concern usually extends as far as the performances and wellbeing of the Gunners involved in the team. But with the World Cup less than a week away (and the United States team unlikely to progress from the group stage) I find myself embracing England as a second team in the tournament. Some of that comes from my affection for the Premier League, and some comes from the presence of a few Arsenal starlets. Regardless, I’m hoping to see England enjoy some success in Brazil and whether that happens will largely come down to whether Roy Hodgson has the courage to give youth a chance. Hopefully you will see this article as what it is; the observations of a peripheral (and biased) observer.
England haven’t exactly been an exhilarating team to watch over the past few years. The results have been satisfactory but the Three Lions performances have been little more than functional. And when the big tournaments have rolled around, those functional performances have no longer been good enough to secure satisfactory results. Part of the problem has been the presence of several national team veterans who have rarely shone on the international stage. England have generally been unable to control possession against stronger opposition while also lacking the dynamism to counter attack with menace. And while England players always work hard on the pitch, the physical side of the Premier League does them few favors in the international game. But now there is a new wave of young English talent that can change the shape and style of the national team. The question is whether Roy Hodgson will unleash them.
The safe choice for Roy is to stick mostly with experience and big names. The most obvious of those names would be Wayne Rooney. His club form has been indifferent and his form for the national team has been equally uninspired. He looks increasingly like a player who peaked earlier in his career and now may not be as capable of regularly influencing a game. But when he is on the pitch, his presence looms over the team. Rooney still has enough quality to make a difference at the top level, but I think there is a legitimate question now as to whether the United star is more of a burden than a beast.
With Daniel Sturridge making the number 9 shirt his own, Rooney is left to play off the young Liverpool striker. It’s a system that hasn’t worked wonders recently at United with RVP and may be equally ill-fated for England. Dropping Rooney would be the most courageous and potentially damning decision for Hodgson. If it worked, England would have a more free flowing attack and more devastating counter. But if England failed to impress, the decision not to start Rooney would invariably be used as the explanation and Roy would undoubtedly pay the price. But Rooney isn’t the only England veteran whose place in the team should be questioned.
Ultimately, the manager has to decide whether it’s the right time to turn the team over to the bevy of young stars waiting for their chance. Assuming Oxlade-Chamberlain is able to play, he joins the likes of Sterling, Barkley and slightly more seasoned Jack Wilshere among the ranks of youngsters who should be considered for a starting role. It may seem like a huge risk to start all the tyros. But the risk can only be measured by considering how successful England can be sticking with the more established or “safer” players.
In my estimation, an England team that doesn’t include the young players I mentioned, is one that has little chance of making waves in Brazil. And the problems begin with the very first game. In Manaus, against Italy, England have perhaps their most challenging fixture of the group. Not only will the heat and humidity provide attritional conditions, but Italy’s slick and savvy midfield is likely to dominate possession. An England team comprised of players like Henderson, Rooney and Gerrard will find themselves pinned back for much of the match but potentially unable to seriously trouble Italy when they do get the ball.
What Ox, Sterling, Barkley and even Wilshere offer is the promise of an energetic counter attack. With Sterling, Barkley, and (if possible) Ox, England have players who will run at defenders and make them commit. They can counter attack at pace and pull defenders away from Sturridge who has proven he can score when given the slightest opening. There won’t be the pressure to make sure the ball moves through Rooney. There won’t be the usual hoofing of the ball over the midfield. For all his flaws and recent poor form, Jack Wilshere is a master of turning defense into attack. He can receive the ball on the half turn, burst into space and deliver the ball accurately to the runners ahead of him. That’s something Henderson simply cannot do as effectively.
Ross Barkley seems the most controversial selection. He proved that he can be electrifying against Ecuador, as he did all season at Everton. But Hodgson was quick to point out his lack of security with the ball. My argument for Barkley is that it doesn’t matter if he loses the ball from time to time. Possession won’t be key to England’s success. (And if it is a key to England’s success, then there’s little hope anyway.) All Barkley needs to do is cause havoc at the back when he does get the ball. Run at defenders and see if they make a mistake. As long as he’s not receiving and losing the ball in his own half, his attacking potential will be more valuable than his sloppiness will be costly.
Players like Lallana and Wellbeck could also be considered part of the youth movement in the England squad and they may be the safe bet for starting roles. But their youth doesn’t change their limitations. Wellbeck isn’t as effective on the wing and therefore serves as a poor substitute for Sterling’s more natural wide play. Lallana is a new addition to the England squad and there’s a lot to like about his game. But Lallana has neither the speed nor the dynamism Ox brings to the side and it’s hard to see him befuddling defenses in the same way. Considering Ox’s injury however, Lallana’s starting place may be most secure.
England should be able to defend capably. Especially with young, energetic legs supporting a decent back four. Glen Johnson will certainly be a liability at the back but with a little help on the right side England should be able to frustrate opposition attacks. Gerrard has shown at Liverpool this season that he can competently play the holding role in midfield, and he will surely be handed that job in Brazil. The important question for England is what will happen when they recover possession.
Beating Italy would put England comfortably on their way to escaping the group. And the key to beating Italy may be a lightning counter attack lead by England’s youngsters. Naturally Roy could opt for a more conservative starting XI, with hopes of springing the young lions on Italy after the heat and humidity of the Amazon have taken their toll. But if England fall behind early, the likelihood of catching Italy on the counter diminishes substantially and the value of the substitutions fades with it. Roy can afford to play it safer against a side like Costa Rica where superior experience and quality should be enough to overwhelm inferior opposition. But the same cannot be said of Italy and Uruguay. And England will likely need four points from those two fixtures if they hope to move into the knockout rounds.
There’s also the question of what qualifies as success for England. Progression from the group would be credible considering the opposition. But a nation with England’s footballing history should be heading to the World Cup with grander aspirations. In Sterling, Barkley, and Ox, England have players who can trouble every defense in the tournament. In Wilshere they have a dynamic midfielder who can set those Lions roaring up the pitch. They can take England’s inability to control possession and turn it into a strength. Much the way Real Madrid counter-attacked their way to a Champions League title, and Liverpool nearly counter-attacked their way to a Premier League title, so too can England lift the tiny, gold trophy they most covet. If England persist with safe, experienced, or more conservative players, then there is a clear ceiling overhead. If Roy give his cubs the chance to be lions, then the sky is the limit.
Written by @YankeeGunner