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article imageOp-Ed: Hodgson's sprightly England squad could surprise many in Brazil

By Tyrrell Meertins     Jun 10, 2014 in Sports
Optimism has filtered throughout England over the past few months. There was never a dull moment in the Premier League as young promising English talent blossomed in a season where anything was possible.
The memories of Gareth Barry huffing and puffing while chasing Mesut Ozil’s shadow or the penalty shootout that saw Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher miss still remain, but Roy Hodgson looks to be taking a different route in Brazil.
With proper time and preparation heading into this tournament — opposed to Euro 2012 where he replaced Fabio Capello on short notice — Hodgson has decided to place his trust on youth, rather than the "golden generation." Many have disregarded England as potential favourites as only eight players remain from the squad that featured in Poland and Ukraine two years ago, thus indicating their lack of experience.
The morale in the England camp has improved in comparison to the toxic aura floating around in South Africa, but Hodgson will face difficult tasks in Brazil. Surely expectations have decreased with this youthful side, but Hodgson still has to display signs of improvement.
Hodgson’s four-year deal was given with the intent on building a foundation to be legitimate contenders in future tournaments. Any result was acceptable two-years ago, and England surprisingly failed to lose a match in regulation time, despite crashing out in the quarterfinals against Italy.
Change was required, and Hodgson acted swiftly. Hodgson abandoned the 4-4-2, and has been utilizing a mixture of a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. With an abundance of talented youngsters at Hodgson’s disposal, the England manager was forced to react.
Still, he’s made it clear that supporters should be cautious with their assessment of the squad before jumping to conclusions.
"Let's see good performance in an England shirt before we say they're world-beaters," Hodgson said.
"We have more pace, more mobility, a lot of technical players. I'm not trying to play down the fact that the future looks quite bright and there are interesting times ahead. This is the World Cup and we are also going to need our more experienced players."
England is a direct counter-attacking team that plays a reactive game and will rely on the pace of their wide players. Hodgson’s side struggle to retain possession, along with breaking down organized back-lines. so they will likely drop into two banks of four without the ball, and aim to attack on the break.
Hodgson, though, faces a serious issue with Manchester United attacker Wayne Rooney.
In the past it would be inconceivable to think Rooney should be dropped from the starting lineup. Like his scoring record in major tournaments, Rooney’s performances have been underwhelming since Euro 2004. His petulance led to his sending off in 2006, he publicly criticized supporters in 2010, and he completely ignored his tactical duties against Italy two years ago.
Seventeen goals and 10 assists is a good return following a disappointing Manchester United season, but the stats are misleading. Hodgson, however, can’t afford to drop Rooney, as it would contradict his decision to include him in the squad. Turmoil within the media and the locker room would arise, and therefore serve as a distraction in Brazil.
In other words, Rooney must play.
Rooney remains in the XI due to past success for his club — and his ability to provide a moment of brilliance — and Hodgson will need to find a way to accommodate the Manchester United attacker. There’s two issues with Rooney playing as the no.10; first, he plays to close to the striker — ultimately making England a 4-4-2 — and he neglects his defensive duties against deep-lying playmakers.
In short, the 28-year-old lacks the positional and tactical awareness to play this role. Unlike Adam Lallana or Ross Barkley, he doesn’t possess the ability to find pockets of space in the final third, and he rarely drops deep to serve as an additional passing option. Rooney has to play this position for England because he can’t lead the line due to the risk of him being too isolated due to a lack of quality service, he tends to drift into areas that the no.10 should exploit, while his threat on the left flank is futile. Likewise, past performances against Sergio Busquets in the 2011 Champions League final, and Andrea Pirlo in 2012 epitomized the fact that he's unreliable in this role.
The right flank is also a position that Hodgson has experimented with over the past 12 months. Theo Walcott and Andros Townsend’s injuries have seen Adam Lallana slot into this role. There’s no natural balance on the flanks, though, with Danny Welbeck operating on the left, as the Southampton midfielder’s lack of pace — which is essential as England will play on the counter — could deprive him of a starting role. Lallana drifts infield from the right flank into pockets of space before linking play in the final third, but it could see Hodgson’s side playing too narrow.
Many have pushed for 19-year-old Raheem Sterling to fill the void after his terrific second half of the season performance for Liverpool. Sterling’s pace, dribbling and willingness to protect his flank makes him favourite over the likes of James Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Welbeck, on the other hand, provides discipline — which will see him likely play as the no.10 against Italy, based on his performance against Xabi Alonso in last year’s Champions League — pace from the left, and a source of ball retention, which has seen him develop into a consistent performer for England.
Steven Gerrard is a definite starter, and either Jack Wilshere or Jordan Henderson will partner him in the double-pivot. Hodgson will likely opt for the latter due to their chemistry at the club level, but Henderson’s role appears to differ on the international stage.
The Liverpool midfielder provides tenacity and energy in midfield with his forward runs into advanced areas to link play, but recently Henderson has been cautious with is movement. England lacks a natural ball-winner or tackler in midfield, and Henderson has preferred to drop deep to help Gerrard circulate the ball, perhaps with fears of the 33-year-old being overrun.
Gerrard received many plaudits this season for his transition into a deep-lying playmaker role; based on stats alone — 13 goals and assists — it was deemed that the Liverpool midfielder enjoyed a sparkling season. Gerrard, however, isn’t a reliable player in this role based on his average defending, and his tendency to be outwitted against clever no.10s.
Jack Wilshere can also play alongside Gerrard, but his discipline in a midfield two is worrying, while Frank Lampard will likely come off the bench if England needs to preserve a result.
Similar to recent years, England’s weakness still lies in their midfield.
Hodgson’s back four lacks a world-class defender, yet it’s the strongest area in his starting XI. Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka form a great balance of power and athleticism, Glen Johnson has proved to be a consistent performer in major tournaments, and Leighton Baines is a good left-back that will see his attacking strengths negated due to the England’s style of play. The issue, though, is whether the back four and Joe Hart can remain fit, as England’s reserve defenders and goalkeepers aren’t equipped to perform at this level, and the James Milner experiment at right back against Ecuador was unsuccessful.
England is an anomalous squad that performs well against superior opposition, but struggle against those of equal or lesser quality.
Hodgson has an abundance of players that offer variety in attack, but the midfield duo and the health of the back four are significant towards England’s success in this tournament.
Nonetheless, this appears to be a squad that was selected solely around the country’s best performers opposed to identifying the right blend of players. In fairness, Hodgson’s talent pool is limited, but the selected players haven’t gelled in his preferred system.
Yet, with no pressure or expectations to win the tournament, England could surprise many as a place in the knockout round isn’t far-fetched.
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
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