The theme of part one of this series was how the squad chosen for the World Cup signalled a breath of fresh air, a new beginning, the genesis of a team with greater ambitions and greater potential than any before them.
But, with all the hyperbole aside, the bleak reality remains that after three warm up friendlies, whatever this squad may have promised, is most likely not going to be realised. It seems once again, the weight of a nation upon the shoulders of these men, both young and old, is still too much to bear.
The Denmark game was lit up by Sturridge’s wonder goal, epitomising his talent and embodying all of his good work this past season, however the infrequency of this occurrence for England is the main concern. What has become second nature to him when wearing the red of Liverpool seems to be an alien concept when the three lions are laden across his chest. His finishing against Honduras was much to be desired whilst rather than the self-assured, unerringly confident striker who plays for Liverpool, the Daniel Sturridge for England seems hesitant, timid, and all in all a completely different player.
Obviously it is not just Sturridge that seems to be burdened rather than inspired by the shirt, for many it seems rather than a badge of honour the England shirt is a crown of thorns, crippling the ability of our best players to perform as they would for their respective clubs. What makes it even more worrying/incomprehensible is that the national crest for other teams seems to be have an affect more akin to Iron Man’s Arc Reactor, galvanising them, transforming the ‘Average Joe’ into a superhuman footballing marvel. There is a bitter irony in the sense that it seems the players are so scared to be deemed failures that this fear itself consumes them and is exactly what is preventing their success.
So why is it that we still can’t break free from the shackles of expectation? My theory is that although this squad has new faces, it is the old that remain as the principal means of achieving our goals, a mantra that, as is now obvious, is flawed on many levels.
So with this brief introduction I now present to you my England Starting XI, and a discussion of why, and how I would want them to start in Manaus.
Goalkeeper – Joe Hart
RB – Glen Johnson / CB – Gary Cahill / CB – Phil Jagielka / LB – Luke Shaw
CM – Steven Gerrard / CM- Jordan Henderson
RW/RAM – Raheem Sterling / LW/LAM – Adam Lallana
ST – Wayne Rooney / ST – Daniel Sturridge
As I said in the first article, the back four pretty much picks itself. The controversial aspect was always going to be the left back spot, and my reasons for picking Luke Shaw are the following.
Leighton Baines is a top quality left back, there is no denying that and he is most likely better than Luke Shaw, however, Luke Shaw’s familiarity with Adam Lallana, which at face value may seem like a negligible quality is in fact what, in my opinion, gives him the edge over Baines.
It seems that in recent years the key to international success (Spain in other words, their recent mauling aside) is having pockets of players that train and play together on a weekly basis. The value of this synergy is unprecedented as it means that each player’s idiosyncrasies will be understood by the players directly around them and thus can get the most out of these unique qualities whilst also having confidence in knowing what their teammate will actually do with the ball should they offload it to him. By playing Luke Shaw the attacking synergy is maximised, knowing when Lallana will need him to overlap or simply provide a safer option; whilst his fantastic engine, blistering pace, tenacity and style of play provide everything we need in the full back position: width, persistence, pace.
This concept of synergy is again the main reason why Jordan Henderson has made it into my starting XI, as although I could make many arguments for Jack Wilshere deserving this starting spot, or even Ross Barkley for that matter; it is the relationship that developed between Gerrard and Henderson this season, and more importantly the success of it, that puts him above the other England players, even those I am a huge fan of. Gerrard at his age needs legs to run for him, his quarterback-esque role for Liverpool this season flourished mainly due to the outstanding work rate and devilish tenacity of his teammate Henderson. So why then would Hodgson not want to emulate a formula that not only brought the best out of his captain, but also transformed the national perspective of Henderson, turning him into the box-to-box midfielder we never thought he would be.
I believe this partnership sets the tone for an expansive and attacking style of play. Gerrard’s ability to put the ball anywhere on the pitch at any given time in conjunction with Henderson’s newly found omnipresence on the pitch means England can become an omnipresent and omnipotent team themselves, threatening from anywhere and everywhere on the pitch.
When discussing the players in front of this solid Liverpudlian base, my selection is based on a mantra and opinion I hold very close to my heart. England have always had pace yet this abundance of speed seems to be rarely exploited. We have been consumed by naïvety, assuming that by creating the game we are therefore the best at the game, yet this ill-judged perception of the national team has bred a negative style of play that completely nullifies the ability of our most dangerous players all in the hope of protecting an international prestige we have never actually attained. Liverpool, who once again I have to humbly make reference to, demonstrated this year that even with a shoddy defence; a quick, relentless early onslaught, with the help of a few talented players, can give even the giants of the game a run for their money. We should desperately try to replicate this high tempo attacking style, as not only are there a healthy amount of Liverpool players in the squad, but a deadly and pacy attack – whether this be through a relentless siege or infrequent yet lethal counter attacks – will not only help make England exciting once again, but in my opinion will get the absolute best out of our best players.
With this in mind, the choice of Sterling and Lallana comes as a no brainer. Sterling has proven this year that he is definitely good enough to trouble the most talented of defenders, whilst Arjen Robben’s masterclass in the art of direct pacy running against the Spain helped his team topple the titans of international football in the most spectacular of spectacular fashions. Furthermore, with Raheem’s newfound maturity and dynamism in his approach to the game, he does not only provide electric pace on the right flank, but also the ability to drift inside and cause problems throughout the whole attack third, something that can be accentuated by the full back’s willingness to push forward and maintaing of width.
Any of you who have had the pleasure of reading my other articles will be aware of my love for Adam Lallana, and although his inclusion could well be motivated purely by this affection, it is again what he offers on the pitch that has earn him a starting spot. Once again, Lallana is a player, like Sterling, who will pick the ball up and run at the defence and, whilst perhaps doing so in a much more elegant manner, the outcome is usually similar with Lallana bamboozling defenders with his delicate touches and magistral trickery rather than blitzing a defender leaving him trailing in his wake like the young Liverpool winger is more accustomed to.
Therefore, the combination of this two players as our ‘wide players’ ensures the running theme of fearless and relentless attacking play is carried right through the team. The problem England face when choosing the likes of Welbeck and Milner is that it has an inherently defensive feel to it. These players have built a reputation for being hard workers and ‘110% men’ and whilst this is not in any way a bad quality, I think Lallana and Sterling represent a fresh, new and exciting approach to the game, something that has perhaps been lost when picking the harder working, but arguably less talented or at least dangerous members of the team. Also, with Sterling being a Liverpool player and the previously highlighted relationship of Shaw and Lallana, the underlying quality of synergy and advanced understanding is again refreshed and renewed in this area of the pitch and most importantly in terms of full back/winger understanding, something that both in an attacking and defensive sense is vitally important to the success of the system and the fluidity of the attacking unit.
The final controversy that has surrounded the imminent England squad selection is whether Wayne Rooney should start. My answer is yes, he bloody well should. Wayne Rooney is undeniably a world class player and despite his far from impressive record at international tournaments, someone of his quality will surely not maintain such a baron spell for his entire career? Also, where he will play has been a product of this controversy, and the only reason why the ‘Barkley vs Rooney’ debate has arisen is because the media and the large majority of the country has considered Rooney as an attacking midfielder, rather than the potent striker that he used to be, and arguably still is. I have a passionate belief that Rooney is a striker and only a striker, and whenever people have played him, or asked him to be played in deeper positions my wrath is often uncontainable. His career has been littered with goals, so in what universe would it make sense to remove him from the position in which he has scored all these goals?
All in all, this mini rant is to serve as the basis for my final justification of team selection in that Rooney is in my team because he is playing upfront with Sturridge. Yes, he has the freedom to pick up the ball in deeper areas, this freedom of movement is a necessary product of the system and the players I have championed, a freedom afforded to him by the natural fluidity of the team composition itself. Rooney has the capacity to play in the exact same way as Suarez operated this season, playing upfront, and so beautifully so, with Sturridge and helping them become known as one of the most deadly attacking duos in the world. With Rooney playing as nothing more or nothing less than a striker, I believe he will flourish whilst also giving more space to the likes of Sterling, Lallana, and to some extent Henderson to break in to and operate in themselves. Despite Rooney not possessing the same telepathic understanding Sturridge has with the ugly Uruguayan fella, he is blessed with an innate understanding of how to score goals and where he should be to score them. Therefore, with two such incredible talents upfront, although the potential to concede may be greater, the days of nail biting underwhelming 1-0 victories would surely be a thing of the past.
To bring this mini series to a close, I must round up by saying this team selection would not only be my team to play Italy, but would be the cornerstone for all other outings in Brazil this summer. It is also not to say that the likes of Wilshere, Barkley and Rickie Lambert will not have a role to play, far from it. If anything, by bringing these players on for the likes of Rooney or Sturridge, should either of them being playing poorly, will also be another feature of a newfound fearlessness I hope the England team, and Roy himself has acquired. Most importantly however, this team selection, I feel, signals a clear break from the aforementioned shackles that have for too long bound England to an unattractive, but more importantly ill-suited style of play. It destroys the traditional pillars preventing progress and replaces them with new foundations based on an eclectic mix of youth, experience, pace, and skill; embodying a style of play and freshness with the potential to propel us towards bigger and better things, if not now, but in the future.
England are not Spain, and we aren’t Brazil, England are England and we need to focus on creating our own unique brand rather than thinking we can trade punches with the footballing elite, especially by employing the styles of football they have already mastered. Change is necessary and it needs to happen before a complete stagnation occurs. I firmly believe that with a team similar to the one I have campaigned for in this articles, the right steps would be made towards this required change.