An impetus on youth is undoubtedly England’s most visible hallmark for Brazil 2014.
FA Chief Greg Dyke has created an entire commission specifically to answer the tough questions surrounding home-grown English talents, even suggesting a reconfiguration of the lower leagues and the introduction of ‘B Teams’, and Roy Hodgson has reflected that concern in his squad selection for the tournament, favouring a new breed of young Englishmen over the well-established old guard.
That progressive policy was typified but by no means exclusive to the selection of Luke Shaw over Ashley Cole. Likewise, the England manager overlooked Michael Carrick and Gareth Barry in favour of Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson, and also refused the opportunity to offer John Terry his international swansong.
I still believe that if Hodgon’s life were at stake, Terry and Cole would have both been selected in his World Cup squad. The former was unanimously viewed as the Premier League’s most in-form English defender last season and the latter proved his utility at top level has far from expired with particularly impressive showings against Liverpool and Atletico Madrid in late April.
One could argue, and quite rightly, that an un-dynamic Italy side, limited in its natural pace and penetration going forward, would have been ideal opponents for the Chelsea veterans.
At the same time, taking just five players over the age of 30 to brazil, and only four with 50 or more caps for England, was a huge risk on Hodgson’s part. The likes of Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana, Ross Barkley, Luke Shaw and Jordan Henderson have all been in proficient domestic form this season, but boasting just 32 appearances for England between them, there was no guarantee that they’d be able to transition their performances to international level.
But the Raheem Sterling’s display against the Azzurri was evidence enough that Hodgson had made the right decision in investing his faith in the Three Lions’ youngest stars at the expense of the old guard.
Many will argue that such praise has come too soon – after all, England’s World Cup fate is now out of our hands after losing to Uruguay Thursday evening. Going out in the group stages would be a huge disappointment, one that could potentially cost Roy Hodgson his job.
But during that 90 minutes against Italy, the Liverpool forward demonstrated everything England have lacked going forward for well over a decade – pace, trickery, intent, but most importantly, confidence and ambition.
England, first and foremost, are and will forever be a direct side. That’s simply the nature of the Premier League; a combination of our country’s philosophical traditions and the division’s entrenched desire to remain the most exciting, complete top flight in world football.
But whilst that trend never translated properly into the former generation – the 40 yard-passes of Steven Gerrard, the target man styles of Andy Carroll and Emile Heskey, the set piece specialities of David Beckham – Sterling gave English directness a whole new meaning against Italy.
For the first time since Joe Cole, in the 19 year-old, England finally have a player prepared to take on opposing defenders, to dare them to commit and entice them into making a mistake. Sterling executed four successful dribbles against the Italians last Saturday, half of the rest of the England team combined and twice as much as our next-best dribbler.
It is not merely a question of the type of player, as I admit, a winger will always be expected to carry the ball more than his team-mates. Rather it is a belief that in taking on defenders one will be successful rather than detrimental to the team. And it’s not just shown in Sterling; Ross Barkley came on to complete two successful dribbles in under half an hour, and that uncharacteristic fluency and confidence in taking on opponents is replicated in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana too.
In a nutshell, they the Three Lions relevance – for more than the last ten years, we’ve appeared distinctly outdated in comparison to European and South American opposition, as if they have somehow evolved further athletically, tactically and technically along the beautiful game’s philosophical spectrum. But Sterling, Barkley, Lallana and company aren’t footballing relics or throwbacks to the game’s past, as one could accuse Steven Gerrard, John Terry, Ashley Cole and Michael Carrick, or even Wayne Rooney, of being.
They are the modern footballer – lightweight, penetrating, skilful and daring – they are everything England have continually suffered without for as long as I can remember. Without our young players, England would be like a World Cup time capsule, echoing an era that the rest of the world has long-moved on from.
Hodgson was right to favour youth over established talent, and regardless of how England finish the tournament – our exit now looks incredibly likely baring a mathematical miracle – he should be rewarded rather than punished for taking a gamble that will undoubtedly have a positive effect on our national game for the many years to come.