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Jack: Lacklustre England closes in on final World Cup squad

Kristian Jack
3/5/2014 9:28:38 PM
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It is easy to dismiss the importance of a small international break held in the middle of the most important stretch of the league season.

For some in England, it is just a distraction away from the main event known as the Barclays Premier League.

Many "fans" gathered in front of their television to watch their nation play on Wednesday and hoped none of the players who play for their clubs would get hurt.

It is a challenge for English football fans to put their country first over their clubs at the best of times. At the start of March? A big ask.

Even those who were behind the game may have been falling asleep into their beverage of choice, as England, once again, showed a real lack of intensity and tempo.

The biggest moment of the first half came when Jack Wilshere had his foot trod on by Denmark and Liverpool defender Daniel Agger and, as he lay down on the ground crying, Arsenal fans, even more than England fans, held their breaths.

Wilshere would play on, as would England, in a game played at a leisurely pace in front of many empty red seats at Wembley.

In truth, you could have removed the fans, the stands and the cameras and it was nothing more than a glorified training game for most.

Not for Roy Hodgson.

Being the final match of the season for the England boss before he gathers his players on May 13 to begin his preparation for Brazil, it was an opportunity to see some of his players work together.

However, even the most staunch supporter of such a fixture will have left Wembley on Wednesday night wondering just what conclusions Hodgson will have come up with from the match.

This was as dull as it gets.

Hodgson visits whichever Premier League games he likes throughout the season and, without question, he will be able to find out more about the players in those systems than one he attempted to put together once all the players reported on Sunday.

The game against Denmark, which England won 1-0, saw Hodgson deploy a 4-3-3 and give a number of young players an opportunity to represent their country. There was little else that could be taken from it, really.
I had made my mind up about most of my England final 23 before the game and nothing swayed me from it against Denmark. 

Goalkeepers

Strangely, Hodgson named four goalkeepers inside his 30-man squad for the game against Denmark. Joe Hart started and is the undisputed number one and whichever two players are chosen to back him up are, likely, not that important.

Defenders

Arguably the biggest decision of all from Hodgson's starting XI was Ashley Cole starting at left back. The veteran has started three Premier League games in four months for Chelsea and doesn't look like finding his way back into Jose Mourinho's side any time soon. However, unlike many England players, it is hard to think of Cole playing poorly too often for England. In a back four short on international tournament experience, Cole shouldn't just go to Brazil, but should start the first game against Italy ahead of Leighton Baines. Luke Shaw, who came on for Cole at half-time, is a fine player whose time will come.

Cole's Chelsea team-mate Gary Cahill is a lock for Brazil, as is Phil Jagielka, who was injured for the Denmark game. Chris Smalling, his replacement, will also go as he can play centrally or at right back. Likewise, Phil Jones can also be used in those positions, as well as midfield, once he returns to full fitness. The one omission is Kyle Walker, also injured for the game against Denmark, who will likely be selected by Hodgson, as well. Walker, though, wouldn't make my squad as he is a liability defensively, loses concentration often and can be exposed in Hodgson's system that requires his team to defend deep and use width in attack. Glen Johnson used to fall into this category but has made strides under Brendan Rodgers and is clearly a player who thrives when his club manager gives him confidence. 

Midfielders

The discussion about the midfield shape cannot be had without defining Wayne Rooney's role in this team. It is one thing for Rooney to play off the striker for Manchester United against many average Premier League teams, but it is quite another to have him play that role against Italy and Uruguay at the World Cup. He just doesn't defend well enough and Andrea Pirlo at Euro 2012 should have effectively retired Rooney in that position for England.

Rooney, then, will play centrally up front on his own, like he did against Denmark and behind him will sit a midfield central three. Captain Steven Gerrard and Wilshere are two automatic starters if they remain fit. For me, the biggest decision comes who plays alongside them. Jordan Henderson got the nod against Denmark and deserved the spot based on his recent impressive displays for Liverpool. That will be enough to get him on the plane to Brazil, but it will be a surprise to see him start the first match against Italy.

Gerrard is in terrific form. He starts transitions well and is an excellent distributor from deep areas, but he will likely need a more defensive-minded player alongside him to protect against counter attacks and allow Wilshere more freedom to get forward. This is where Michael Carrick should be used, although it seems to be easy pickings at the moment to knock the Manchester United midfielder. In fact, a national newspaper ran a poll this week and 70 per cent of their readers felt Carrick shouldn't go to Brazil. To ignore a ball treasurer like Carrick would be naïve for England, but it is not like they haven't done it before.

When England are chasing a game, they will have the opportunity to bring on more attacking players like Henderson, Ross Barkley, Adam Lallana or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain inside that midfield three. All of these players can make a difference to a game and can bring some tempo and pace when opponents tire. Lallana changed the game against Denmark and England fans will be hoping he can do what David Platt did in 1990, bringing quality and an appreciation of space off the bench.

Oxlade-Chamberlain, like James Milner, who is excellent at defending a flank, can play centrally or out wide and both should be picked on quality alone, but also bring much-needed versatility.

This all means no place for Frank Lampard and that's how it should be. A World Cup spot should never be given because you were a good servant for years and big games have now passed him by.

Forwards

This leaves us with five spots.

Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling played either side of Wayne Rooney against Denmark.

Sturridge scored the game's only goal and will likely start England's first game following a terrific season for Liverpool. Playing him out wide, in a 4-3-3 had its challenges early with his wing being exposed when he drifted centrally, but with three central midfielders that should be ironed out and, at least, he is doing it on the left with a full back who is likely to stay deeper (more than Johnson, that is).

Alongside Sturridge, Rooney and Danny Welbeck will both go to Brazil.

Hodgson will need to pick one other centre forward who can bring something different to the attack physically, hold the ball up and be a menace to defenders if the game situation warrants it. Rickie Lambert is the odds-on favourite for this spot, but I would take Andy Carroll if he is healthy. It wasn't that long ago that he caused Sweden no end of problems at Euro 2012 and, if he can play well for West Ham in the next ten games, he would get my pick.

This leaves one spot. Hodgson could (and probably will) select another defender in Walker, but he may also lean towards another striker like Jermain Defoe or another player in a wide area while withdrawing a central midfielder, such as Sterling, Aaron Lennon, Ashley Young or Andros Townsend.

Sterling aside, the rest have had difficult seasons with their clubs. I would probably give the nod to Townsend because he has played well for England and brings pace but, unlike the other 22 spots, this is the one where the next two months will tell me who should go.

Whoever is selected, it appears England are a long way away from making a serious run at the knockout stages based on their latest performance. 

My squad:

Goalkeepers: Joe Hart (Manchester City), Fraser Forster (Celtic) and John Ruddy (Norwich)

Defenders: Glen Johnson (Liverpool), Chris Smalling (Manchester United), Phil Jones (Manchester United), Phil Jagielka (Everton), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Ashley Cole (Chelsea) and Leighton Baines (Everton)

Midfielders: Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Jack Wilshere (Arsenal), Michael Carrick (Manchester United), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Ross Barkley (Everton), Adam Lallana (Southampton), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arsenal) and James Milner (Manchester City)

Forwards: Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool), Danny Welbeck (Manchester United), Andy Carroll (West Ham) and Andros Townsend (Tottenham Hotspur)




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