In the absence of our own Boys in Green from next month’s World Cup, much of the focus of Irish support will likely shift to supporting whoever happens to be next up for the auld enemy from across the channel. Particularly if that opportunity arises in England’s speciality – the penalty shoot out. With this in mind, and perhaps even if you are in the Irish minority (like me) who will have a slightly softer spot for the Three Lions, today’s announcement of Roy Hodgson’s 23 for the tournament should be of considerable interest to all football fans nestled in this little corner of the world.
Injuries, retirements and a relative dearth of talent arguably make the amount of difficult decisions Roy has to make minimal in comparison to previous editions, but there are still a number of interesting angles that will reveal themselves this afternoon. Will the former Liverpool boss favour the steady hand of experience over the exuberance of youth, will he favour pedigree over form, and will there be room for any genuine wild cards – in the mould of Theo Walcott back in Sven’s 2006 squad.
Tournament squad composition
Putting together a tournament squad is a unique proposition in the world of football, it’s simply different from running a club, or even from an international qualifying campaign – where generally speaking, you pull together a smaller group of players for a much smaller amount of time. Words like harmony, fit and flexibility therefore are suddenly considerations for selection of players in a way that they may not be ordinarily. The players need to get on with each other for hopefully a month and a half (this could be a problem if for example, they have slept with each others wives) while in addition, the coach needs to have enough options to entertain as much scenarios as possible that could emerge over the course of the tournament. It’s not about picking the 23 ‘best’ or ‘most deserving’ players per say, it’s about giving yourself options to change a game or to attack or defend a particular opponent in different ways. Put simply, there is little point in bringing a poor mans version of your third choice central midfield player, who has no route on to the pitch that doesn’t involve a number of injuries. That is what the stand by seven are for!
Even after you cover out all your scenarios, it’s still likely that there are a couple of tickets left on the plane. That said, there are no room for passengers! If you have some guys who are highly unlikely to play, then they better be seasoned and dedicated professionals who can contribute off the pitch. Carrying people to gain experience is not beneficial to the here and now, carrying people to share it is. If you cannot envision a likely scenario where a younger player plays a role, then he has no place on the plane.
Now even though I have spent the last two paragraphs shoving a quick guide to tournaments squads down your throat, it probably makes just as much sense to disregard every word of it. Such is the lack of top tier talent and greater squad options available to Roy Hodgson, that honestly we may as well just light the last few paragraphs on fire.
In fact let’s just replace them with one golden rule – Do not bring Tom Cleverly!
Other than that just roll the dice Roy, here’s my 23.
Note: I’ve gone for 8 defenders, 8 midfielders and 4 strikers, it’s possible that Hodgson will plump for an extra midfield player and one less at the back.
Goalkeepers; Joe Hart, Ben Foster, Fraser Forster
Very little to be said here, Hart, after regaining form and confidence is the undisputed number 1 and no one else will play barring a disaster. A rejuvenated if nerve inducing Foster will deputise, while Celtic’s Forster will provide the kind of professionalism and competence desired in a 23rd man
Defenders; Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka, Leighton Baines, Kieran Gibbs, Glen Johnson, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Luke Shaw
Injury seems likely to rule out Spurs’ Kyle Walker, and while his defensive positioning can vary between questionable and atrocious, his athleticism, energy and a gruesome lack of rivals for a spot, would have guaranteed his inclusion without his bad luck. In his absence the United pairing of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling will provide cover for the experienced Glenn Johnson at right full. Smalling and Jones have noticeably stalled in their development this season but remain the best options to fill in for first choice centre half pairing, Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka, as well as providing cover at right full (well they’ve played there before, I didn’t say they’ve ever played well there).
The one bonus the versatility of Jones and Smalling provides to the squad, is the ability to squeeze three left fulls on to the plane, without compromising on cover across the right and centre of the back line. Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs has enjoyed a relatively successful season, with some consistent performances. However, Baines now provides the best combination of defence and attack, particularly with his set pieces, while Luke Shaw provides the kind of dynamism that could prove invaluable as a change of pace off the bench in replacing either or of his more experienced colleagues.
Elsewhere, the push to include Everton’s John Stones seems ridiculous to me at this point. I simply fail to see a scenario at this stage, where the player is trusted to offer a contribution, regardless of the promise of his talent. Steven Caulker meanwhile has hardly submitted a strong enough case in Cardiff’s relegation season to be considered ahead of Shaw.
Midfielders; Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana, James Milner, Jordan Henderson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere
It remains unclear how Roy will arrange his midfield quartet or quintet (a player listed as a striker like Danny Welbeck would likely find his way into ‘midfield’ in such a quintet), but the composition of the squad is unlikely to change too much regardless of how the manager is thinking.
Steven Gerrard is not the athlete he was a few years ago, but if Hodgson can refine his role in a way that has Gerrard playing to his strengths and within a system, there is enough in the tank for the Liverpool captain to more than capably anchor this sides midfield. Around him the picture is less clear, a narrow three would arguably play to the team’s strengths, and Henderson, Milner and the emergent Lallana offer options alongside Gerrard, while Oxlade-Chamberlain offers extra pace either through the middle, or wide where he offers further flexibility. Raheem Sterling has done the most in the past 6 months of any English player, to vault his way into his former manager’s summer plans. Sterling has been quite frankly sensational in the last few months, providing pace, guile and goals in a combination his talent has long promised but one worried his maturity might impede. Lampard is likely but a bench player at this point of his career, but is the kind of glue player whose experience and intellect is invaluable for the journey in store.
Wilshere is the wildcard in the bunch. Having looked like the crown prince of English football not long ago, he is now struggling to develop amidst what seems like an endless stream of injuries. Somewhat reluctantly, I chose Wilshere in a toss up over Ross Barkley for my final spot – but all assuming that the Arsenal man proves his fitness. For me, Barkley remains too green tactically at this point in his development to start in international football, and therefore to be an automatic inclusion. The Everton mans best moments continue to come in the type of broken play that will not be typical in the warm and humid conditions of a Brazilian World Cup. With this in mind, Wilshere gets the nod for now. Barkley it has to be said was my only difficult omission from the midfield 8, the omissions of United duo Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverly were quiet frankly (and upsettingly) less of an issue.
Strikers; Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck, Andy Carroll
Rooney has never developed into the truly great player he threatened to be when bursting on to the international scene in the Euro 2004 campaign, but he remains a very good player and of crucial importance to England’s fortunes. Sturridge’s maturation since he has joined Brendan Rodgers at Anfield has helped add much needed class to the England attack and the Liverpool man should start in the tournament regardless if England operates in a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3. Danny Welbeck meanwhile, continues to be the unfortunate enigma of a striker who is seemingly at his least comfortable while in front of goal all while still being a good player. His goal scoring record is better for England than it is for his club, but the attempted finish he produced while through on Manuel Neuer’s goal in the Champions League will not inspire anyone that he would convert a key opportunity if presented with it in Brazil.
The fourth striker roll is probably even more concerning, Jermaine Defoe was never a top class international striker while young and not a Canadian resident, and so it is unlikely that that has changed now that he is both old and a Canadian resident. Rickie Lambert has proved a nice story, but it is difficult to see the Southampton man offering the kind of change in approach that you typically want in a fourth striker especially when the prospects of Rooney leaving the pitch while meaningful football is still to played are remote. With that said, Andy Carroll is my surprise inclusion for the fourth strikers role. Don’t get me wrong, if Andy Carroll is starting games then England will be on the first flight home, but if England are chasing a goal late, then the physicality and aerial prowess of the big pony tail is an intriguing card to have in the deck.
All in all this is far from a vintage England squad in terms of top end talent or depth, but that doesn’t mean we won’t have fun rooting for or against them as they navigate through their World Cup journey – the next step of which comes this afternoon.
Richard O’Donovan, Pundit Arena.