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Faced with the potentially problematic task of selecting England’s World Cup squad, few could argue with Roy Hodgson’s final 23-man selection. Only a couple of those selected, raised feint queries amongst those still faithful to England’s most trusted servants and ageing ambassadors. The squad in truth picked itself, in the recent past England managers could stick with stalwarts who’d become a fixture in the England setup, but after an eventful Premier League season and rise of much of England’s youth, Hodgson’s hand was forced into picking a new generation of English footballing knights.
Strikingly with an average age of 26, England’s current crop will be the second youngest squad to represent the Three Lions at a World Cup. In contrast to Capello in South Africa, who took England’s oldest squad in their World Cup history, England will take two teenagers to the tournament for only the third time, with the spritely Raheem Sterling and left-back stand in Luke Shaw both justifying their places after sublime seasons.
Joining the teenage talent; Ross Barkley, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere, Jordan Henderson, Daniel Sturridge along with Manchester United defenders, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, all form a core of England players under the age of 25. Significantly these ten players are not the inexperienced Theo Walcott’s or Aaron Lennon’s of World Cup’s past, but have already established themselves as focal points in their respective domestic teams. Hodgson’s choices show selection by merit, offering a timely balance of both levelled experience and refreshing youth.
In a group which demands performance, there is no room for manoeuvre for Hodgson, who must get points off either Italy or Uruguay before facing Costa Rica, to secure progress into the second round. The three friendlies before then (Peru, Ecuador and Honduras) will allow the former West Bromwich Albion manager to firmly cement his eleven men who’ll be tasked with the challenge of overcoming a very difficult group.
While selecting 23 was arguably not too troublesome, his starting eleven will determin England’s progression through Brazil next month, particularly who is selected in midfield and as their attacking options. The issue Hodgson has is whether to give the young players, many with less than 10 caps, a baptism of fire in the sweltering heat of Manaus against Italy on June 14th. The defence is pretty much set in stone with Hart, Johnson, Jagielka (if fit), Cahill and Baines occupying the first five players on the team sheet. Add to that, captain Steven Gerrard who shall take a variation of the ‘libero’ role acting as a deep shield too our vulnerable defence while also beginning attacks with his exquisite distribution.
Either side of Gerrard forming the heart of England’s trusted 4-3-3 formation, I would deploy Barkley and either Henderson or Wilshere in this key area. Barkley’s powerful charges forward, evoke a Gerrard of old and will free up huge space in the attacking third for the three above to exploit accordingly. Henderson would provide the defensive balance and gives England the proven partnership which catapulted Liverpool up the league this year. In Wilshere, England have a player yet to fulfil his potential, still at the age of 22, despite maligned injuries he offers the vision and terrier-like pressing which can turn defence into attack efficiently – perhaps offering a greater attacking threat to Henderson.
Similar to the defence, the front three can pretty much, already be selected. Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge both will be deserved starters, leaving one more position up for grabs to either Raheem Sterling or Danny Welbeck. The difficulty here, is where they will play, in particular the accommodation of Wayne Rooney. Sturridge was easily the stand-out English striker in the Premier League this year which in theory should push Rooney out wide enabling Sturridge to flourish in his favoured position. Wayne has occupied a wide position previously, most notably in the ’08 Moscow Champions League Final, meaning if a job needs to be done Rooney can adapt. Although the problem here would be primarily Rooney’s lack of pace, in a position where England will need it most at the World Cup to stretch the opposition.
Like Barkley in midfield, Sterling simply must start in the opposing wide position on the left of Sturridge. At 19 Sterling would be a fresher at university right now (let that sink in) and he is without doubt one of the best young footballing talents in the world right now; possessing unadulterated speed and having an intelligent brain to match, Sterling holds a rare, deadly combination for someone of his age – one which few opponents can handle.
As we approach two weeks until the World Cup; anticipation, excitement and our hopes of an England success, gather momentum. Despite not many giving England a chance of making a breakthrough in Brazil, with an exciting, youthful team at his disposal it would be a crying shame if Roy didn’t unleash the future of English football on teams less-fortunate in Brazil. Cast your mind back to France ’98 and envisage ‘that’ burst of acceleration and goal from Michael Owen, aged 18; fearless, determined and effective – Roy must put similar faith in our talented youth like Hoddle once did, in order to reap the rewards in Brazil.