This has been a fairly muted prelude to the World Cup for England. It’s a big help. There are no declarations of reaching unattainable targets. There’s resignation among most, an acceptance that England aren’t as good as many of the top nations set to compete in Brazil. In fact, there’s an enormous case to be made that England aren’t even the second best team in their group.
The only disquiet, albeit one that gradually faded, was in Roy Hodgson’s team selection and the omission of Ashley Cole. There was fleeting unhappiness at the inclusion of Frank Lampard; if you’re going to go the way of a youth-dominated squad and in preparing for the European Championship in France, why not go all the way? But Lampard’s place in the squad can easily be explained. Above all, he’s a good leader.
Here’s my confusion on the Ashley Cole debate: why is there so much focus on the left-back spot? England have Leighton Baines, a good attacking full-back; Luke Shaw, who most project to be England’s first-choice for the next decade; and Kieran Gibbs, who, despite having another good season at Arsenal, has been left out altogether. The rush of bodies aiming to be first in the queue to question the England manager’s decision to leave Cole behind and ultimately push him towards international retirement is fuelled by little other than ill-preparation for change.
Would Cole really have been the difference for England this summer? A good left-back, yes, but a left-back in a position that is arguably England’s strongest. Hodgson doesn’t have a plethora of options at centre-back; he’s already lost a couple of wide players; who plays second fiddle to Daniel Sturridge in the even Hodgson goes with both him and Wayne Rooney in the starting XI?; and the real area of concern that’s been overlooked by most: how on earth can England expect defensive safety in what you’d assume will be a conservative setup with Glen Johnson at right-back?
That’s the really worry. Forget Cole and who plays at left-back; that position is fine. The problem area is on the other flank, where Johnson is the only natural right-back set to travel with the squad. His involvement rests on whether Chris Smalling or Phil Jones can find fitness and form.
But the other problem that some have had with Hodgson’s squad selection is the overall leaning on youth. I don’t have a problem with it. It makes sense. It’s good preparation for what will come afterwards. But the attack on Hodgson’s squad, intertwined with a defence of Cole, is that coaches should pick their best team for now, their best players and the ones who will make an impact at this international tournament, not one a few years down the road.
I can see the logic in that argument and I accept it. Where it falls flat is that it doesn’t apply to England. This is a country that develops its players differently to the way Spain or Germany wok – and probably most countries, for that matter. Young players with the tag of ‘next big thing’ are thrown into the deep end.
There’s no time to waste with U21 tournaments and even the steady ascent to the top level of youth international football. Teenagers are thrown into the first team because the coach, whoever it may be at the time, is constantly battling pressure and the need to create the impression that he’s making progress. Essentially he’s fighting for his own job, rather than the safety and proper education of young players.
Adding to that, England don’t really have a ‘best team’ in the sense that the omission of players like Cole will severely weaken an area of the pitch and in turn the entire XI. We can debate all day and land on a starting XI that might be good enough to compete, but it’s not to say there are many, if any, players who are essential to the squad. ‘England must take their best squad.’ Well who qualifies for that?
Here’s an example: Vicente Del Bosque must decide on which strikers to include in his squad. Spain are a team whose strength comes from their midfield, so taking more of those and less strikers is natural.
The Spanish coach will have to figure out who can bring the max out of his team, which combination of Diego Costa, Fernando Llorente, Fernando Torres, David Villa, and Alvaro Negredo will increase Spain’s chances of winning the tournament. England aren’t asking those sorts of questions. Any of those strikers would walk into Hodgson’s team and probably start.
It’s for that reason that I don’t really see the point in taking players like Cole, and I certainly don’t see the point in fighting his corner so passionately. Go with youth – or basically the group of players who will help to form most of the squads in the future – because honestly Hodgson and England don’t have much else to turn to. There is nothing available to the team that would make them certainties to advance out of the group, let alone lift the trophy at the Maracana.
The most pleasing aspect of Hodgson’s squad selection was in the evidence that England have a head coach who can be bold, who can make difficult calls which should in the long run prove to be to the benefit of the national team.