It’s now only just over a month until the World Cup kicks-off in Brazil and every football fan up and down the country is (probably) playing Roy Hodgson and naming their 23-man squad for the tournament. Cole or Shaw? Lampard or Carrick? Cleverly or someone with actual talent? These are the big decisions Roy will have to make in the coming weeks.
It will be a refreshing change for an England team to go into a World Cup unencumbered by unreasonable public expectations of winning the thing. Remember Sven Goran Eriksson being castigated for merely leading an admittedly superior England team to 3 successive tournament quarter-finals? Most England fans would bite your hand off if you offered them a quarter-final exit this time round.
Time to select a potential squad to go to Brazil. Unlike in previous years where the problem has been whittling the squad down to 23, this time it’s not easy to find 23 players who are worthy of going. There are maybe 14 or 15 English players who are of international class, and the rest of the squad picks itself more by a process of elimination rather than via merit.
To make Hodgson’s job slightly easier, my brother and I pick our 23 players to gallantly fall at the group stage with a solitary laborious victory over Costa Rica to show for their efforts.
Joe Hart (Manchester City)
Ben Foster (West Bromwich Albion)
Fraser Forster (Celtic)
RDW: Selecting the goalkeepers is probably the easiest task. Joe Hart, despite his high-profile slump earlier this season is by far and away the best English keeper, and the mind boggles at how much ropier an already ropey England defence would be were he to get injured. His decision making is occasionally poor, and he often seems to want to play the hero by trying to claim a ball he’s never going to reach, but his positioning and shot-stopping are excellent. Beyond that, Ben Foster is nothing more than a reasonable Premiership player, while I have never seen Fraser Forster play, but am selecting him based on the fact he reportedly played well in this season’s Champions League, and that I think John Ruddy is a bit crap.
DDW: I agree. As undisputed number one, Hart picks himself. Foster has been in good recent form for West Brom and is pretty much guaranteed a place. The third-choice goalkeeper almost certainly won’t play so I would take Fraser Forster. He has top-level Champions League experience with Celtic (they shut-out Barcelona last season) and has excelled as they romped to the title. At 26, he still has a good 8 years in him at the top-level and the general experience would be beneficial. John Ruddy isn’t an international-class goalkeeper and Scott Carson, although good enough (witness his performance against Arsenal in the FA Cup sem-final), has been playing 2nd tier football all season.
Glen Johnson (Liverpool)
Leighton Baines (Everton)
Phil Jagielka (Everton)
Gary Cahill (Chelsea)
Ashley Cole (Chelsea)
Phil Jones (Manchester United)
Chris Smalling (Manchester United)
RDW: We have only selected seven defenders because we don’t think a specialist reserve right-back is necessary. All the talk, in these days of congested midfields, is of the modern full-back being the most important attacking outlet, which can be true given the right formation, and a tactically disciplined full-back equally comfortable attacking and defending, but such players are rarely seen this side of Dani Alves and David Alaba. Kyle Walker is fast, skilful and loves getting forward, but is positionally a liability, and were Glen Johnson to get injured, then either Phil Jones or, potentially, James Milner would be just as good an option.
DDW: The first choice back-four of Johnson, Baines, Jagielka and Cahill looks relatively strong but if any of them are injured, alarm bells start ringing. Jones and Smalling can cover right-back and centre-back and their inclusion is mainly based on their versatility rather than their current form which has been pretty abysmal. There are a startling lack of viable alternatives at centre-back. Michael Dawson has been found wanting too often at the highest level, Ryan Shawcross is just a thug, and John Stones of Everton is very promising, but also very raw and too inexperienced.
RDW: The lack of depth at centre-back is worrying – Cahill has improved vastly this season, but neither Jagielka’s pace nor his anticipation are sharp enough against top-class strikers, while Jones and Smalling, despite their potential, have struggled this season. The other options aren’t too promising though – the soon-to-be-relegated Steven Caulker, the aforementioned I’ve-got-the-turning-circle-of-an-articulated-lorry Michael Dawson and the one-good-season-in-a-mediocre-Hull-side-makes-me-look-better-than-I-actually-am Curtis Davies. Left-back however, is a position where England have if not an embarrassment, then at least a mild self-consciousness of riches. I’ve never been fully convinced by Leighton Baines as a defender, but he seems to be Hodgson’s choice. Following his impressive debut against Denmark, there has been a clamour for Luke Shaw to be included, but he is still very green, and I would feel much safer with Ashley Cole facing a rampaging Luis Suarez, not to mention an exuberant Joel Campbell.
DDW: Cole over Luke Shaw is a sensible choice because even though the Southampton youngster is a prodigious talent and will probably usurp Baines as first-choice after the World Cup, Cole has mountains of experience at international level which will be absolutely priceless in Brazil. Lest we forget, the Chelsea player has put in two excellent performances recently against arguably the two form teams in Europe: Atletico Madrid and Liverpool.
Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)
Jack Wilshere (Arsenal)
Jordan Henderson (Liverpool)
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arsenal)
Adam Lallana (Southampton)
Raheem Sterling (Liverpool)
James Milner (Manchester City)
DDW: Aaron Lennon (Tottenham Hotspur)
Ross Barkley (Everton)
RDW: Michael Carrick (Manchester United)
Frank Lampard (Chelsea)
DDW: The hardest selection for me. In the heat of South America, the midfield requires a combination of energy and technical prowess. The only dead certs are Captain Marvel Gerrard and, even though he is a bit crocked at the moment, Jack Wilshere. On his performances this season, Jordan Henderson gets the nod, as does Ross Barkley. The Everton man is not in the greatest of form at the moment but he is a fine physical specimen and he is a brilliant technical footballer whose forceful, driving runs from midfield could be important. Now there is a case for Frank Lampard and Michael Carrick, both of whom offer a wealth of international experience in an otherwise fairly novice midfield, but they are the wrong side of 30 and have not shined for their clubs this season. I have watched Lampard in Europe this campaign and he has looked sluggish. The quickness of thought is still there but the body cannot keep up with the mind. Carrick, who, one assumes, would play the same role as Gerrard, has neither the same athleticism nor the range of passing as the captain, and Manchester United’s dreadful campaign has somewhat ruined his chances. On the flanks, Raheem Sterling is a must, as are Adam Lallana (who could be England’s star of the tournament) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. I’m even including the much maligned (by myself mostly) James Milner who offers not only versatility, but also a newfound attacking threat this season from midfield. The final place goes to Aaron Lennon. The mini winger hasn’t re-produced his stellar level of last season, but as an old-fashioned wide-man, he offers something different. And, unlike Theo Walcott, he can cross.
RDW: Much as I’d like to be contentious and daring in choosing my midfield, there just aren’t that many good young England players around getting enough game time to force out some of the old guard. Picking Gerrard is a no-brainer – he’s had one of his most influential seasons for years, and has added positional discipline to his impressive range of passing, while, provided they are fit, Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain must also go. Sterling and Lallana both impressed against Denmark and have arguably been the two best attacking midfielders in the Premier League over the past two months. From then on the selection is far less clear-cut. James Milner has long been derided as your typical English player – long on work-rate and stamina, short on actual talent, but he has been one of Manchester City’s most influential players recently, and his versatility could be invaluable. Lampard and Carrick are both known quantities, and Carrick’s ball-retaining and underrated ball-winning abilities may well be crucial against Italy. Lampard makes my squad just ahead of Tom Huddlestone, whose passing is a joy to watch, but is too slow and ponderous for international football, and Gareth Barry, who has been in great form for Everton this year, but doesn’t add anything different to the squad. The final place goes to Jordan Henderson, who for many people would be an automatic choice given his pivotal role in Liverpool’s season, but I don’t see his energetic bursts being quite so critical, particularly in the heat of Brazil where games may well be played at a lower tempo. However, for me he’s a better bet than Ross Barkley (out of form and too inconsistent), Aaron Lennon (too much like a headless chicken) and Tom Cleverley (too crap).
Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool)
Danny Welbeck (Manchester United)
Rickie Lambert (Southampton)
RDW: As with the goalkeepers, the strikers select themselves almost by default. Rooney is a tricky one. He is clearly a fabulous player, now a regular goalscorer for both club and country, but the feeling remains that he should be so much more. At Euro 2004, there were three outstanding young players – Rooney, Robben and Ronaldo. The latter two have gone on to become truly world-class players (in Ronaldo’s case an all-time great) and have proved their talent consistently in subsequent continental and international tournaments. Rooney hasn’t. It could be that he’s not strong enough mentally to raise his game for the most crucial matches; it could be that his level of fitness isn’t high enough, meaning he’s just too tired come the end of the season. I personally think that his technique doesn’t match his vision, leading to frustration on the pitch. Many times he looks to make a pass, or take a touch that very few other people in world football would have even spotted, let alone dared play, but his technique lets him down. However, he is, of course, England’s most talented player and most likely source of a goal, and, despite recent poor performances, should never be left out of the team. Sturridge has had a brilliant season at Liverpool, playing with a swagger, striking up a partnership with Luis Suarez, and scoring plenty of goals. He is a selfish player, and has gone off the boil in the past few weeks, but always carries a goal threat.
DDW: With Jay Rodriguez’s untimely injury, I agree, the forward line basically picks itself. Rooney and Sturridge will almost certainly spearhead the attack and Will-Smith-in-Fresh-Prince-of-Bel-Air lookalike, Danny Welbeck, can stretch tiring defences, as well as covering left midfield. Rickie Lambert sneaks in ahead of Andy Carroll for many reasons, the main one being superior talent. The Southampton striker offers an aerial threat combined with a sharp footballing brain and great vision. Carroll offers one of those things and little else. Yes, if England are losing he could be an option in the last 10 minutes but I’d like to think that they have progressed from the dark days of ‘lump it up to the big man.’ England’s defeat to Italy in Euro 2012 was a microcosm of Andy Carroll. He scored a great header but when the team needed him to control the ball/pass to a teammate in the second half, he was found wanting. His selection would certainly be a backwards step for the England team.
RDW: Welbeck is ungainly and looks slightly un-coordinated, but seems to play well for England, looks comfortable down the left, and Jay Rodriguez’s injury means his place is far more secure. The fourth striker isn’t easy to select. I would love to pick Liverpool legend Andy Carroll, and have been desperate for him to make an unarguable case for selection in the past couple of months. Instead, he’s been harshly sent off, set up Kevin Nolan a couple of times, and hit the woodwork a lot. I worry that like Peter Crouch, who seemed to constantly get penalised at international level merely for being very tall and gangly, he would unwittingly give away too many free-kicks, and wouldn’t be allowed to play his natural, forceful game. Lambert is in good form, holds the ball up excellently, and, potentially rather importantly, takes penalties with a Le Tissier-like precision. It is also high time a former Rochdale man played at the World Cup.
The two defeats to Germany and Chile in November really highlighted England’s standing in world football; capable but limited. The team no longer possess the individuals to strike fear into opponents’ hearts. With a tactically astute Hodgson at the helm, the best England can hope for is a quarter-final, although I would be very surprised if they even make it that far. Roy, we’ve selected the 23 players who almost certainly won’t be bringing football home. You’re welcome. Over to you.