If you want a measure of how little room Roy Hodgson has to manoeuvre it came in the reaction to his choice of World Cup squad. Basically, there wasn’t any.
In the past, the announcement of the 23 has precipitated endless head-scratching, chin-stroking debate about who should be in and who shouldn’t. Though it might be stretching linguistics a little far to describe Paul Gascoigne’s room-smashing reaction to the decision not to include him in 1998 as debate.
This time, after a season in which only 25 per cent of Premier League starting line-ups qualified for England, Hodgson’s choice was greeted with a gentle nod of acceptance. Everywhere you heard the hum of approval.
There were a couple of points of argument, generally around his decision to take Luke Shaw rather than Ashley Cole. But that was mainly evidence of the fact that left-back is one of the few areas on the pitch where there is a real choice. Everywhere else in the team, in the absence of the injured Theo Walcott and Andros Townsend, frankly they picked themselves. This was the very definition of beggars not being choosers.
Still, given similar circumstances four years ago, Fabio Capello managed to make a right hash of things. Quite how he managed to take an 18-month long look at English football and conclude that it would be best to take Michael Dawson, Aaron Lennon, Steven Warnock, Matthew Upson, Emile Heskey, Shaun Wright Phillips and the perpetually crocked Ledley King to South Africa is one of the mysteries of international management.
Even so, despite the fact that at least 20 of the names he chose would have been on everyone’s list, there is a nice balance to Hodgson’s squad. There is a sensible mix of potential and experience; he has not fallen into the trap stumbled upon by so many of his predecessors of selecting too many defenders; in Ricky Lambert, Leighton Baines and Frank Lampard he has a number of penalty specialists; he has thought wisely and well.
Most importantly, he has selected on form. The absence of Michael Carrick, Ashley Young and – to loud hurrahs echoing round the nation – Tom Cleverley, is largely a reflection on Manchester United’s woeful season. To select any of them ahead of confident, in-form Adam Lallana, Jordan Henderson or Raheem Sterling would have been seriously misguided.
The next test of Hodgson, naturally, is who he picks for his first game against the Italians. Such is the lack of choice, in my paper The Daily Telegraph, all four writers asked to come up with their ideal side for the encounter in Manaus went for the same XI. Which is surely unheard of. In any pub discussions about who should play for England, someone always comes up with a different XI.
Not this time. All four of them reckoned the team should be: Hart; Johnson, Jagielka, Cahill, Baines; Gerrard, Henderson; Sterling, Rooney, Lallana; Sturridge. It is a nice team. It has skill, technique and pace. On paper it looks rather hopeful. There is just one slight drawback with it: I don’t think Hodgson will go with it.
He is facing the Italians, a prospect to bring out the pragmatist in any coach. The need to stop Andrea Pirlo dictating the pace of things will be uppermost in his mind. My suspicion is he will want to flood his midfield, and will need willing work-horses rather than show ponies on the flanks. I think he will go with this side, playing 4-3-2-1 when in possession, 4-5-1 when not: Hart; Johnson, Jagielka, Cahill, Baines; Gerrard, Henderson, Lampard; Milner, Welbeck; Rooney.
I’m not saying that is better. I just think that is the more likely direction of his choice. Never mind that Italy, when they played Spain recently, looked singularly pedestrian at full-back, he will keep the rocket-heeled Lallana and Sterling on the bench, to come on as impact subs if needed. For the stifling jungle heat, he will pick a side not to lose. But then so will Cesare Prandelli, the Italian coach. If ever there was a game destined to finish goalless it is England’s opener. You can put your house on 0-0. Especially with that line-up.
After which we can stamp our feet and complain, fretting about why Lampard, Milner and Welbeck were chosen ahead of Lallana, Sterling and Sturridge, moaning about missed opportunity and paucity of ambition.
We can all demand that the fluid, more aggressive line-up predicted by my colleagues at the Telegraph will be chosen for the games against Uruguay and Costa Rica. We can only hope Hodgson sees sense and picks the right men for the remaining group games.
That is the thing about England: even when the manager has virtually no room for manoeuvre there is potential to get shirty about who is chosen at the business end.
- Sports & Recreation
- Roy Hodgson
- Adam Lallana