With only a short time left in the league campaign, aspiring England players have very little time left to impress Roy Hodgson and put forward their case for a spot on the plane to Brazil. I’ll discuss who I think should be with the national team as they touch down in Rio; injury permitting.
Joe Hart: His place on the plane has never been in doubt all season, but his starting berth was placed under threat when a series of questionable performances for Manchester City caused him to be dropped for Costel Pantilimon for a few matches. Roy Hodgson however never wavered in his assertions that Hart was his number one, and the goalkeeper went on to regain his first team spot for Man City, and has not looked back since.
Ben Foster: He has picked up a few International caps to date in friendly matches and is a reliable ‘keeper, but won’t go to Brazil as anything more than a back-up to Joe Hart.
Fraser Forster: With the third choice keeper highly unlikely to see any action, it is a prime opportunity to take a youngster purely to gain big tournament experience. He may have to move to the Premier League to stand a chance of displacing Hart in the future, but a trip to Brazil may do him the world of good.
Glen Johnson: Liverpool’s first choice right-back has not had his best season, with much of the winter period blighted by an ankle injury. He began solidly enough but played through pain for many weeks, and his form suffered greatly for it. After returning to action, he has hit a degree of form again but still not peaked to his past best. Yet, he is still the most reliable English right-back and is highly favoured by Roy Hodgson, so should start.
Kyle Walker: The obvious choice to fill the reserve right-back slot, as he has a fair few international caps to his name. The Tottenham man still relies too much on his extreme pace to get him out of self-induced trouble in my opinion to be relied upon in a major tournament.
Gary Cahill: Cahill has become a defensive stalwart for Chelsea this year, as he is now acknowledged as an important half in his partnership with John Terry. If Terry’s international career was still alive, then this would quite probably be the perfect pair for England. As it is however, Cahill has shown enough to instil faith in the fans that he is now exceptionally reliable and brave.
Phil Jagielka: Despite his recent injury problems, Jagielka has had an extremely good season. A vocal participant in Everton’s water-tight back four, he has been the man to partner Cahill in England games since Euro 2012 and, assuming a satisfactory resolution to his current ailment, should do that job in Brazil too.
Phil Jones: Jones has not progressed quite as well as was expected following his big-money move from Blackburn Rovers to Manchester United a couple of years ago. We cannot be sure if this is the fault of the player, or as a result of being played in several different positions. This latter observation does of course have its advantages, and his ability to be employed as a utility man should cement his place in the squad.
Chris Smalling: Jones’ fellow defender at Manchester United, Chris Smalling is in a similar position to his team mate. He is swapped between full-back and centre-half from week to week and this may have hampered his development in a specific position. Being able to efficiently slot in across the back four should get him a place on the plane.
Leighton Baines: While his form has not been quite as blistering this season as last, he has remained a vital part of Everton’s team in an attacking and defensive sense. His delivery from a set piece is generally spot on and Roy Hodgson has shown faith in him for the last few internationals, leaving no doubt that he is first choice.
Luke Shaw: The Southampton left-back was recently named in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year, beating off competition from Baines himself. This achievement should not be underestimated for a player who is still only a teenager. He has already been involved in England squads in anticipation of a World Cup berth and I believe a place in the final 23 would be hugely beneficial for both the player and the team.
Steven Gerrard: As captain, his place on the plane to Rio is of course already secure as is his position in the starting XI. He has been peerless for Liverpool all year and despite the derision that met his slip against Chelsea, Brendan Rodgers correctly said that they “would not be in the position they are without him”. In his new role in front of the back four, he has been able to dictate the play and control the speed of the game. This could prove to be of vital importance in the sweltering heat of Brazil.
Jack Wilshere: Another season for the Arsenal midfielder has been wrought with injury problems, all seeming to stem from a troublesome ankle. Wenger however has dispelled doubts of his fitness by declaring that he will be available in time for the World Cup. He provides an extra dimension in the middle of the park due to the way he can take the ball in tight areas, spin, beat a man, and set up an attack. When fully fit, he changes the way a side can play and England need as many of this sort of player in their ranks as possible.
Jordan Henderson: The former Sunderland man is one of Liverpool’s most improved players this year, transforming himself from an occasional substitute to a mainstay of the team. He possesses a tank that never seems to run dry and so has been a very successful foil for Steven Gerrard all campaign. Henderson is no longer only a pair of legs however, as he has added quality to his game in the final third, making him a serious contender to start in Brazil.
Michael Carrick: This is perhaps the position I had the most trouble over. While I don’t rate Carrick as highly as some, he has picked up a great deal of caps and has plenty of big game experience from his time at Manchester United. He just about gets in the squad ahead of Frank Lampard because of his defensive discipline, and ahead of Ross Barkley because there are more players who can fit into the attacking midfield role.
Adam Lallana: As the Southampton fans sing; “He plays on the left, he plays on the right. Adam Lallana, he makes Messi look…” fairly average, you can guess how highly they rate him. I share this faith in his ability having seen him a couple of times first hand. His close control blew me away, and he is one of only a few naturally two-footed players it seems. One factor which is commonly missed is his acceleration over the first 10 yards as well. Not having been overawed by his previous England experiences, Hodgson cannot fail to have been impressed by the 25 year old.
Raheem Sterling: The Jamaican born winger is the third component in Liverpool’s potent attacking trio and he has really come to the fore since Christmas. He has always had pace and skill, but his end product has been questioned. This season’s goal output, assists, and chance creation have put pay to that belief. He is so confident at the moment that you just feel whenever he is on the ball, something is about to happen. He may only be 19 years of age, but boy is he maturing quickly into a vital component of the team. His form towards the end of the season in helping Liverpool’s title challenge has pushed him towards even a starting berth.
James Milner: ‘Mr Reliable’ and ‘will do a job for you’ are just two of the clichés associated with James Milner. While these may be true, he does deliver a fantastic cross and can make some surging runs into the box given the opportunity. I can see Hodgson calling upon him again for sure against either Italy or Uruguay in the group stage to counteract the opponent’s offensive capability, but what he provides in the attacking third shouldn’t be ignored.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: He has been nothing less than impressive after returning from injury and has often added extra impetus to a weak Arsenal attack. Wenger has begun to deploy him more frequently in a central midfield role in addition to on the flanks, and Chamberlain has taken to this like a duck to water. This versatility is reason in itself to be in the squad, but Hodgson needs players with his drive and pace to improve the side’s tempo in humid conditions.
Wayne Rooney: You can debate forever over whether Wayne Rooney has fulfilled his potential set out to everyone as a 16 year old. But it cannot be argued that on his day, he is perhaps the nation’s most complete footballer. He has all the talents to play right across the front line and more recently in midfield for his club. The Manchester United talisman is closing in on Bobby Charlton’s all-time England goal record, and in order for them to make real progress in Brazil, you have to feel that Rooney would need to play a huge part in that.
Daniel Sturridge: Another real plus point for Liverpool this season has been the form of Daniel Sturridge. Despite tailing off slightly in the last couple of weeks, he has been truly for large portions of the campaign and has won several games on his own when Suarez was absent from the ranks. Sturridge has the pace to stretch any back-line in world football, and if he combines this with the quick-witted and skilful play we have seen all year, then he can be the thorn in the side of many an international defender.
Danny Welbeck: A real favourite of Roy Hodgson’s, Danny Welbeck gives his side extra legs up front or on the flanks. First team opportunities have been somewhat limited for him again this year, prompting rumours that he is looking for an exit from Old Trafford. With a serious lack of options in the striking department for England, he is almost guaranteed a seat on the plane.
Rickie Lambert: In what may be a straight fight between Lambert and Jermain Defoe, I believe that the Southampton forward has the edge. He adds something different and gives a new problem for the opposition to handle. He has also performed well for England in his somewhat limited opportunities so far and to go along with his Premier League scoring record, should provide a decent option off the bench.
- Standby List (7 allowed)
A further seven players are selected to form a standby list, and these can be drawn upon if injuries occur in the build up to the tournament itself.
John Ruddy: Ruddy is in a similar position to Foster, and so I believe only one of them should go. As England fans, we have to hope that neither of the reserve goalkeepers are required in the tournament, making it unlikely that we will find out who Roy Hodgson sees as his second choice.
Ashley Cole: It was a very tough decision between Luke Shaw and Ashley Cole for the second left-back slot and as such, I feel it is only right to have Chelsea’s veteran defender as a standby. He would fill in more than capably should injury occur and certainly would not let anyone down. Recently playing 3 massive games in 8 days for Chelsea has gone some way to proving his fitness too.
Curtis Davies: He has been an absolute rock for Hull City all year long, and has been one of the most reliable defenders in the league. Playing for an unfashionable club has meant that he has not received sufficient recognition for his achievements. The only thing standing in his way is his lack of any prior experience at international level, and that is why I believe Roy Hodgson will plump for Steven Caulker of Cardiff as a standby instead.
Adam Johnson: Prior to being ruled out for 10 weeks after ankle surgery, Andros Townsend would have taken this space for me. However, the form shown by Adam Johnson since his reintroduction into the Sunderland team has been instrumental in their push for safety. He is a key reason why it looks like they may well beat the drop with his trickery and ability to take on a man being difficult to stop. With nothing to lose, he could be a surprise package if he had to come in as a replacement.
Frank Lampard: Massively experienced in all levels of the game, his form has slightly dropped off this season, as has to be expected. He would be invaluable around the squad but his effectiveness on the pitch at the highest level has been called into question, meaning that he just misses out on the plane for me.
Ross Barkley: Finally starting to deliver on the promise he showed before his latter teenage years were hampered by serious injury, Ross Barkley has set the Premier League alight at times this year. The choice was a tough one between him and Michael Carrick, because although they play different positions, I felt a reserve for the Gerrard role was required. Barkley however would be a more than adept replacement should injury befall Wilshere or Lallana.
Jermain Defoe: In an ideal world, England would not need to even consider including a striker who is currently plying his trade for Toronto F.C. However, with such a shortage of quality front men, the former Spurs striker would still come into the reckoning. He has an admirable record for England and, should he make it to Brazil, would still not be a bad option off the bench if you are looking for a goal.
- Starting XI Against Italy:
Whilst the 6 most defensive players almost pick themselves, there are far more options to consider in the attacking region of the pitch. I have picked Jordan Henderson to start predominantly for his ability to get up and down the pitch so effectively. He and Lallana are energetic enough to disrupt the Italian dictators of play, such as Pirlo and De Rossi. Should they begin to tire, then you always have the option to bring on either Jack Wilshere to add something different to the midfield, or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Milner for their stamina and energy levels.
Although you may disagree with Wayne Rooney being selected to play on the left, this is not a rigid front three that I have in mind. With two of the successful Liverpool front three from this season, it would make sense to employ a fluid system here with a great degree of interchanging positions. All 3 have shown throughout the campaign that they can work diligently for their defensive responsibilities too. With Rooney perhaps mainly on the left, his famed tracking back could help to counteract the forward runs of the progressive Italian full-back Ignazio Abaté. Should there be the need for extra legs later in the game, then Hodgson could use Welbeck or Oxlade-Chamberlain again. Or, should the situation require it, the introduction of Ricky Lambert would provide the Italy defence with an entirely different proposition to defend against.
All in all, I believe that the squad as a whole contains the right blend of youth and experience that would constitute a healthy atmosphere within the camp. Big tournament experience can only help the younger members in the squad for the future. As for the first team itself, if employed with the correct tactics then it can form a solid defensive unit, but also possessing the pace and cutting edge to hopefully punish teams on the counter attack. With the additional bonus of avoiding injury, they can provide a stern test to any side on their day.