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article imageOp-Ed: Hodgson's gamble on youth could foil England's World Cup chances

By Tyrrell Meertins     May 12, 2014 in Sports
Being an England supporter is a difficult task. A life full of optimism and heartbreak wouldn’t be classified as healthy, and the obsession to be the best could lead to premature grey hairs.
Silverware is all they ask for, but with every passing tournament Three Lions supporters have very little to cheer about. This was supposed to be their time, but it appears that the optimism instilled into the national team over the past 10 years has been nothing more than unwarranted hype.
Within the last decade the Golden generation –– Steven Gerrard, David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney, John Terry, Ashley Cole and Michael Owen –– found various ways of underachieving under immense pressure. They were supposed to be the spine that guided England to prominence on the international stage, but penalty shootout exits to Portugal, and failing to qualify for Euro 2008 under incompetent managers saw that dream fade away.
Still, even under the renowned Fabio Capello, a heavy Gareth Barry touch and images of the 33-year-old midfielder chasing Mesut Ozil’s shadow in Bloemfontein couldn’t be regarded as the darkest moment in England’s 2010 World Cup campaign. Penalty shootouts once again haunted England two years later, but this time they deserved no better. Wayne Rooney enabled Andrea Pirlo to dominate England for 120 minutes, and Roy Hodgson’s men were clearly outclassed by a superior Italian side.
The squad that travelled to Poland and Ukraine was a balance of experience of youth, and although Pirlo’s masterclass –– along with his panenka that outwitted Joe Hart –– will be remembered, England failed to lose a match within 120 minutes. Nevertheless, similar to the performances of the experienced players, the result didn’t satisfy the supporters or the media.
Hodgson, however, has benefitted from past failures, receiving the patience and trust from supporters. In fairness, he did receive the jobs a few months prior to Euro 2012. Yet the realization that England is far from an elite international outfit, and the decision to start fresh and inject youth into the squad had finally registered throughout the nation.
Youth is what they wanted, and that’s what Hodgson returned when he announced his 23-man squad for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The English manager is resting his trust on the youth, as only six of the 23 selected players have World Cup experience. It’s a bold statement; one that no manager would have dared to express a few years ago, and while the decision pleased many, Hodgson is taking a huge gamble.
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The misconception regarding the sole importance of a players club form during international team selection often dominates local pub debates when these lists are announced, but there are several key components that should be considered. The Score’s soccer feature writer Richard Whittall briefly described four key factors regarding international team selection, and a manager’s tactical preference vividly stood out.
Ashley Cole’s exclusion from the 23-man squad encouraged the 33-year-old to retire from international football. England’s most consistent player over the past decade with 107 caps was excluded for 18-year-old Luke Shaw, who has 45 minutes of international experience under his belt. One would quickly point out Cole’s lack of minutes at Stamford Bridge this season due to the emergence of Cesar Azpilicueta, but the decision is precarious.
"Among many difficult decisions I've had to make for my squad, not selecting Ashley was one of the hardest," Hodgson told TheFA.com.
"There are few players who can be considered among the very best in the world, but Ashley in his prime was the best left back without question."
First, Cole has never excelled under Mourinho’s tactical scheme, yet he still displayed that he’s still an astute left back in performances against Atletico Madrid and Liverpool. Secondly, while Hodgson’s team selection shouts out adventure, energy, and excitement, the likelihood of England playing reactive football in Brazil is high. Finally, with England likely to set up in two deep banks of four, Leighton Baines isn’t as effective as Cole. Cole is a better defender than Baines, and without the ball or a legitimate target-man upfront the Everton left-back's qualities are limited.
Gary Cahill was arguably the best Premier League defender this season, and his partnership with Phil Jagielka will be closely analyzed on the big stage. Meanwhile Glen Johnson rightly faces no real competition at right back, as he’s produced decent performances for England over the past few years.
The two areas that provide little debate are the goalkeepers and strikers. If fit, Joe Hart will feature in every match, while the Hodgson’s sole decision upfront was whether to take Andy Carroll or Rickie Lambert, and the manager opted to go with the latter. Hodgson will be pleased to hear that Rooney should be fit ahead of England’s first match against Italy. This will be the first tournament that Rooney will enter barring injury and suspension since Euro 2004, and despite the 28-year-old’s mediocre form this season, Hodgson will be aiming to get the best out of his talisman.
It seems that part of Hodgson’s selection was based around maintaining team chemistry, as a Southampton contingent in Shaw, Lambert and Adam Lallana, along with Liverpool’s Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling is visible. The positive aspect regarding the youth selected in Hodgson’s 23-man squad is that they provide the dynamism, mobility, trickery, pace, and an element of creativity that England has lacked in recent years.
The other main concern was the exclusion of Michael Carrick and the inclusion of Frank Lampard. Although both men have endured forgettable campaigns, David Moyes’ tactical scheme, along with Manchester United’s pitiful midfield exploited Carrick on a weekly basis. Carrick’s timely interceptions, passing range, ability to dictate a match, and ball retention skills would serve as an asset to an England squad that’s incapable of preserving possession. Lampard, on the other hand, will likely serve as Gerrard’s replacement in a role that often leaves the 35-year-old exposed.
While Lampard’s passing varies from sideways and backwards passes, and his distribution from deep is mediocre, Hodgson believes Lampard leadership qualities are pivotal.
"You can't compare players in terms of age but in terms of position and what they bring to the team. Frank has been the captain of the team during my two years and vice captain to Steven Gerrard,” Hodgson said. "He still plays a very important role in his club side and his leadership qualities and ability as a player means he fully justifies his position."
Similarly, Gerrard will automatically start in the deep role that he’s successfully adopted at Liverpool. Offensively, Gerrard’s 14 assists signify his impact, but from a defensive perspective it’s likely that Henderson and Jack Wilshere will be forced to aid the England captain. Gerrard’s productivity is limited when pressed, and too often have attackers exploited pockets of space in the final third when the 33-year-old is fielded as a single pivot.
Still, the exclusion of Carrick could prove costly. Wilshere’s battle with form, injuries, along with his ability to perform at the international level is worrying. Ross Barkley and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have been inconsistent over the past 12 months, whereas Lampard is a liability.
Winning is the main objective at a World Cup. Put simply, you choose your best team, as experiments and giving chances to the youth are meant for qualifiers and friendlies. It’s peculiar to see Hodgson stray away from the balance he adopted in 2012, but the main question is do these young players possess the quality, tactical awareness and discipline to compete against elite international sides?
First, Hodgson needs to find a starting line-up that provides overall balance. Perhaps England’s performances will justify Hodgson’s squad selection, but failure in Brazil won’t be overlooked because of the youth/experiment theme that surrounds his squad selection.
It will either serve as another step in the right direction, or additional failure.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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