|Hodgson's true test as England manager begins now|
"Partridge: Oh I read your article in the paper. I loved that phrase you used 'Revolution, not Evolution'." Hayers: "No it was the opposite 'Evolution, not Revolution'." Partridge: "Well you know whatever. Because that is me. I evolve, but I don't...revolve. Or vice versa."
Whilst classic comedy quotes such as the above from Alan Partridge are not the first thing you think of after England’s meek and mediocre exit from another international tournament, the same sentiments used - by Partridge, not his erstwhile boss Tony Hayers - are now the key motto for Roy Hodgson to adopt to avoid becoming known as a failure as England manager.
England’s next tournament is the World Cup in Brazil, 2014. Two years away. The old guard will only get older, with the majority of the senior players likely to be past their peak for a tournament in the Brazilian heat, with games coming at a high intensity and frequency. Steven Gerrard will be 34, John Terry 33, Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka both 31, Scott Parker 33, Frank Lampard 36, Gareth Barry 33, Jermain Defoe 31 and Rio Ferdinand 35. The only possible exception is Ashley Cole who, despite being 33 in 2014, *might* still get the nod. However, the argument for younger blood may see even Cole spared for the tournament.
Which begs the question, why not start the revolution early? Why not now? The qualifying group that England face consists of Euro 2012 hosts Poland and Ukraine, Montenegro and minnows San Marino and Moldova. That’s 10 games likely to be testing at best. Throw in the confirmed friendly matches against Italy, which comes in two months time, Scotland and Sweden, and England have at least 13 matches between now and the start of the World Cup (should the qualification be as straightforward as it appears) in which to mould a young squad into a concise, tactically astute and familiar group of players.
The qualifying matches would present Hodgson (more on him later) with an opportunity to gel some of the country’s best young players with those in the current squad who aren’t nearing the climax of their career. I’ve looked at the current England squad, plus the U21s, U20s, U19s and the rest of the English set up, including some of the young players heralded for a big future, to produce a 57 man national pool of players to be considered for the ‘revolution’.
All are under the age of 28, which means they will be 30 or under come Brazil 2014. All are not a part of the old guard, so no real association with past failures can be drawn. And all, importantly, (though perhaps irrelevant with a staunch 4-4-2 supporter as manager) are perfectly suited to the 4-5-1/4-2-3-1 formation which achieves arguably the greatest results. So then, these players...
Goalkeepers (age in brackets) club in italics
Joe Hart (25) Manchester City
John Ruddy (25) Norwich City
Jack Butland (19) Birmingham City
David Stockdale (26) Fulham
Ben Amos (22) Manchester United
Alex Smithies (22) Huddersfield Town
Jason Steele (21) Middlesbrough
Gary Cahill (26) Chelsea
Glen Johnson (27) Liverpool
Micah Richards (24) Manchester City
Chris Smalling (22) Manchester United
Kyle Walker (22) Spurs
Leighton Baines (27) Everton
Phil Jones (20) Manchester United
Martin Kelly (22) Liverpool
Kieran Gibbs (22) Arsenal
Steven Caulker (20) Spurs
James Tomkins (23) West Ham United
Jon Flanagan (19) Liverpool
Zeki Fryers (19) Manchester United
Jack Robinson (18) Liverpool
Nathaniel Clyne (21) Crystal Palace
Ryan Bertrand (22) Chelsea
Ryan Shawcross (24) Stoke City
Theo Walcott (23) Arsenal
Adam Johnson (24) Manchester City
Jordan Henderson (22) Liverpool
Ashley Young (26) Manchester United
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (18) Arsenal
Tom Cleverley (22) Manchester United
Jack Wilshere (20) Arsenal
Jack Rodwell (21) Everton
Josh McEachran (19) Chelsea
Aaron Lennon (25) Spurs
Scott Sinclair (23) Swansea
Nathan Dyer (24) Swansea
Tom Huddlestone (25) Spurs
Jonjo Shelvey (20) Liverpool
Mark Albrighton (22) Aston Villa
Wilfried Zaha (19) Crystal Palace
Ross Barkley (18) Everton
Gary Gardner (19) Aston Villa
Raheem Sterling (17) Liverpool
Ravel Morrison (19) West Ham
Nathan Redmond (18) Birmingham City
Jack Cork (23) Southampton
Nick Powell (18) Manchester United
Wayne Rooney (26) Manchester United
Danny Welbeck (21) Manchester United
Andy Carroll (23) Liverpool
Danny Sturridge (22) Chelsea
Jay Rodriguez (22) Southampton
Connor Wickham (19) Sunderland
Benik Afobe (19) Arsenal
Will Keane (19) Manchester United
Harry Kane (18) Spurs
Adam Le Fondre (25) Reading
From this pool of players, using a 4-2-3-1 formation (with two less attack-minded central midfielders acting as a foundation for the forwards, a set of wingers/inside-forwards and a playmaker/trequartista in the spot behind the striker) I have devised England’s first, second, third and even fourth strength squads:
First XI: Hart (c); G.Johnson, Jones, Cahill, Baines; Rodwell, Wilshere; Walcott, Rooney, Young; Welbeck
Second XI: Ruddy; Walker, Smalling, Caulker, Gibbs; Huddlestone, Henderson; Lennon, Oxlade-Chamberlain, A. Johnson; Carroll
Third XI: Butland; Richards, Kelly, Tomkins, Robinson; McEachran, Cleverley; Dyer, Shelvey, Sinclair; Sturridge
Fourth XI: Smithies; Flanagan, Fryers, Shawcross, Bertrand; Cork, Barkley; Zaha, Powell, Redmond; Rodriguez
Making Joe Hart the captain would seem, to me, to be the wisest choice. Goalkeepers as captains just seems to work. Ask Spain with Casillas, or Italy with Buffon. There are arguments for giving the captaincy to Rooney or Wilshere, but in doing so it is likely to force added pressure and unwanted responsibility on their shoulders, despite both possessing arguably the most natural ability that an English player has had since the mercurial Paul Gascoigne. Stick Rooney as vice-captain, with Wilshere third choice. Make them both key players in the team, through the role they play and also through leading by example.
|Jack Wilshere is set to become a key figure in the national team|
Now we have the teams, we need the tactics and the management. Step forward Roy Hodgson. 4-4-2, as we have seen, just doesn’t work the way that Hodgson has England playing it. Two banks of four, with no pressing, and long ball football is archaic, ugly and unsatisfying to all concerned. Full-backs need the licence to roam forward. A 4-2-3-1 becomes a 4-5-1 in defence, with, say, Rooney dropping deep to press the ball and the wingers tucking in to create a narrow five man midfield ready to harass the opposition, win the ball, and then assume the dominant position.
All four of the England teams I’ve chosen work on a system where the defence is balanced and structured, with full-backs that like to get forward. This is supported by one (or even two) of the central midfielders having a natural ability to drop deep to anchor the midfield (Rodwell, Wilshere, Huddlestone, Cleverley, Barkley). There are creative midfielders who like the ball at their feet and are comfortable just passing the ball rather than thrusting it forwards aimlessly (Wilshere, Rodwell, Henderson, McEachran).
Then, into the attack, there are the natural wide players who have pace, trickery and a goal threat, who are equally adept at pulling full-backs and central defenders out of the middle as they are at cutting inside to terrorise a defence with pace (Young, Walcott, Lennon, Johnson, Dyer, Sinclair, Zaha, Redmond). Couple this with players who provide a brilliant link between midfield and attack (Rooney, Oxlade-Chamberlain and youngsters like Shelvey and Powell) then England’s strikers (Welbeck, Carroll, Sturridge) will have a supply chain behind them ready to provide goal-scoring opportunities, as well as take them on their own merit.
The pool of players does come with a few wildcards. Many of the young players are still on their development path, so the likes of Sterling, Shelvey, Robinson and Flanagan at Liverpool, Powell and Keane at Manchester United, Zaha and Clyne at Crystal Palace and Redmond at Birmingham, whilst highly rated, still have some way to go. And unknown quantities Le Fondre, Cork and Rodriguez, who are all set to hit the Premier League this season with Reading and Southampton alike, have a great chance of making a name for themselves. Rodriguez and, in particular, Le Fondre, have a great goal record and are still young enough to make their mark on the England setup, while Cork’s upbringing at Chelsea and now playing in a fluid Southampton team is likely to earn him a number of new fans.
By giving these young players the next two years to bed into the team, Hodgson can use the World Cup as a perfect launch pad for the future of England. There is little chance that England will win in 2014; no team from outside of South America has won the World Cup when it has been played there, in six attempts. So two years of qualifications and friendlies, an international tournament of high regard and then a European Championship qualification group will give Hodgson’s new team four years and around 30 matches in which to become a cohesive and impressive unit, by which time England should be amongst the favourites to win Euro 2016. Either that, or we’ll be having the same discussions in two years time. Hopefully I won’t see you then...