16 Conclusions On The England Squad...

Barring the exclusion of Ashley Cole, that was pretty much what we predicted. It's a youthful, exciting squad that harnesses all the good news stories of the season...

Last Updated: 13/05/14 at 08:35 Post Comment

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* Barring Ashley Cole's exclusion (more on that in a minute) Roy Hodgson named the 23 players we predicted in last week's World Cup ladder. In the end it was perhaps all a tad obvious - but in a good way - as a) injuries, b) the woeful form of Manchester United's midfielders and c) the refusal of Andy Carroll to score just a handful of goals, narrowed the field to a pretty obvious 23. Or so we thought.

* Not taking Cole could be a massive error, not only because of Luke Shaw's obvious lack of experience, but because of Leighton Baines' relative lack of experience. At 29 years old, he has started just six competitive games for England - two of them against the might of San Marino. The only competitive England games he has played away from Wembley were against San Marino and Moldova. As recently as September, Hodgson picked Cole to play in a must-not-lose game in Ukraine.

On a very basic level, I believe that Cole is a better full-back than Baines. Not a better all-round player, perhaps, but in a one-on-one defensive situation against a world-class winger, I would opt for Cole every time; see Chile's first goal at Wembley in November for evidence of Baines' weaknesses in defence. Through no fault of his own, Cole has played very little football for Chelsea this season, and yet still been excellent in recent weeks, particularly against Atletico Madrid and Liverpool. Those games are far likelier to resemble England v Italy in Manaus than Hull v Everton in Humberside.

* Cole's exclusion only really makes sense if Hodgson has been utterly convinced by Baines' performances in an excellent Everton side this season and decided months ago that he had nailed England's left-back spot. Then the choice became between Shaw or Cole for the back-up spot and Hodgson had to make a call about the positive or negative influence an aggrieved Cole would have on the England squad. For all the Daily Mirror's talk about Cole and Frank Lampard providing leadership in Brazil to 'World Cup virgin soldiers', it was always difficult to see Cole cast in the role of father figure.

* Even while in disagreement about the choice of Cole (over Baines in the XI and Shaw in the XXIII), respect is due to Hodgson for his handling of that situation. There was no indication of that decision until the minute Cole was informed on Sunday night - while he was still involved in crucial Champions and Premier League games, all Hodgson's public utterances were designed to encourage.

* If Cole had been picked, he would have been one of only seven survivors from the last World Cup and 12 from Euro 2012. This squad does have a freshness and a youthfulness that many thought would always be beyond Hodgson and that is epitomised by the inclusion of the 18-year-old Shaw, who has already played a remarkable 58 Premier League games. He could yet go to seven or eight major tournaments and has the potential to surpass Cole as England's greatest ever left-back.

* Some people will always think that Hodgson should have gone further and included young players like Jon Flanagan and John Stones, but they tend to be people who utter ridiculous sentences like 'if we're going to lose, we might as well lose with kids'. Two things: 1) England cannot pick a World Cup squad based on probable defeat and 2) what effect would abject failure have on those young players? Hodgson has picked a relatively young squad, without going to extremes. Picking Stones or Flanagan as anything other than back-up players would have been folly; they will be better players in the Euro 2016 qualifiers for being involved at all.

* And yes, that does mean that even Chris Smalling's inclusion is justified. As the fourth-choice centre-half and third-choice right-back, we do not expect him to play a single minute in Brazil. But he at least has Champions League and Premier League title-winning experience that will make an unlikely appearance rather less daunting than it would be for Stones after half a season in the top flight. What will not be justified is Smalling's continued inclusion in squads post-World Cup if his form and fitness do not drastically improve.

* While not throwing the baby out with the bath-water, Hodgson has harnessed all the good news stories of the season with the inclusion of Liverpool's quintet of players, Southampton's trio and Ross Barkley. There can be no cries of 'but he's had a blinder...', unless you are wearing club blinkers and you want to attempt to make a case for Tom Huddlestone or Fabian Delph. The 23 players Hodgson has picked are basically the 22 best English players right now (and Smalling).

* Hodgson was saved from a 'but he's had a blinder...' moment when Jay Rodriguez was ruled out through injury. Would he have gone? Probably not, but there would have been no shortage of people screaming that he should have been in the squad ahead of Danny Welbeck. We're not saying that his injury was a blessing in disguise, but it certainly removed one of the more potentially contentious issues.

* We won't be so coy about Kyle Walker and Andros Townsend because their injuries really did get Hodgson out of a hole. We've consistently said that Walker would not make the final squad because managers rarely take two specialist right-backs to a tournament, but the majority of the media were merrily predicting that both him and Glen Johnson would be in Brazil; Walker's predictable omission would have been spun otherwise. As for the other crocked Spurs player, regular readers will know exactly what we think about 'symbolic pick' Townsend.

* For a supposedly conservative manager, Hodgson is taking a considerable risk by naming Steven Gerrard as his most defensive midfielder. Have we ever gone to a major tournament without a specialist defensive midfield player in the mould of Gareth Barry, David Batty or Nicky Butt? That's not a criticism of Hodgson's decision - after all, Liverpool have finished second with Gerrard as their most defensive midfielder - but it's an unusual move. Phil Jones and James Milner can play there as safe options, but Hodgson's first-choice central midfield options are Gerrard, Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson, all players who naturally play on the front foot. Conservative? Pah.

* Is Wilshere a risk? Yes. Is it a risk worth taking? Yes. When he's fit, he's the best English midfielder under the age of 30. It would be ridiculous not to take him to the World Cup because he gets injured relatively often. Just like Holland would always take the risk on Robin van Persie and Germany would not leave Mesut Ozil at home, Hodgson should take Wilshere if he is fit to play right now.

* Now we arrive at the thorny issue of Frank Lampard. There should be a rule in place that you're allowed to moan about his inclusion only if you can come up with the name of an English midfielder who could go in his stead - preferably one with big-game experience who can take penalties and has a history of scoring goals from midfield. If you're saying Delph or Huddlestone at this point, give yourself a good talking-to. In an ideal world, we wouldn't need to take a 35-year-old squad player to a World Cup; we blame Tom Cleverley.

* There has been a great deal of misplaced talk about Hodgson being in thrall to big clubs, and in particular Manchester United. But Hodgson has done exactly what most football fans would do and crossed out the names of Michael Carrick and Cleverley as their form has stuttered. Some will push for more and question whether Danny Welbeck would be in the squad if he played for any other side, but that is very simplistic thinking - Welbeck has proved himself to be one of those rare players (see also Darren Anderton and Darius Vassell) who simply look comfortable in an England shirt. He has barely had enough chances for United this season to truly judge his form, although he was their best player against Bayern Munich. Sometimes a coach has to trust his instincts.

* What a difference two years make. Carrick has gone from refusing to be on a stand-by list to feeling lucky to be involved at all. Jermain Defoe should also feel incredibly lucky that there is such a dearth of England striking options that Danny Ings and Connor Wickham were probably the next cabs off the rank.

* Poor Phil Neville. Not even a mention.

Sarah Winterburn

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d like to add players who push their team-mates out of the way to celebrate on their own

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