Here’s the squad…
Goalkeepers: Joe Hart (Manchester City), Fraser Forster (Southampton), Tom Heaton (Burnley)
Defenders: Ryan Bertrand (Southampton), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Nathaniel Clyne (Liverpool), Danny Rose (Tottenham), Chris Smalling (Manchester United), John Stones (Everton), Kyle Walker (Tottenham)
Midfielders: Dele Alli (Tottenham), Ross Barkley (Everton), Fabian Delph (Manchester City), Eric Dier (Tottenham), Danny Drinkwater (Leicester), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Adam Lallana (Liverpool), James Milner (Liverpool), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), Andros Townsend (Newcastle), Jack Wilshere (Arsenal)
Forwards: Harry Kane (Tottenham), Marcus Rashford (Manchester United), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool), Jamie Vardy (Leicester)
Here are the conclusions…
* In the end, the only real surprise was that Roy Hodgson named a 26-man squad rather than the traditional 23 with a stand-by list. The Daily Mirror predicted an eight-man back-up squad of Daniel Drinkwater, Marcus Rashford, Phil Jagielka, Michael Carrick, Fabian Delph, Jermain Defoe and Jesse Lingard and Theo Walcott but Hodgson decided against the ‘pick every England player I can think of minus Ryan Mason because he’s been sh*t’ option and instead named a quite neat 26-man squad which appears designed to provide cover for the perma-crocked Jack Wilshere and recently crocked Jordan Henderson while giving Rashford a pressure-free chance to make himself undroppable.
Of the players to take the top 23 spots in our last England ladder only Luke Shaw, Danny Welbeck and Phil Jagielka have not been named in this 26-man squad. Consider that Drinkwater, Bertrand, Kyle Walker and Delph occupied 24, 25, 26 and 28 in that ladder and the picture is clear: This was a pretty predictable squad, whatever anybody writes elsewhere about SHOCK omissions.
* The outliers are of course Andros Townsend and Rashford. Nobody should be shocked by the former – as soon as Dat Poor Guy was ruled out, there were three vaguely viable options to replace him: Townsend, Theo Walcott and Lingard. We have been outspoken critics of all three, but Townsend is clearly the right option for right now. His form since joining Newcastle has been nothing short of phenomenal, with his dynamic, direct, cut-in-from-the-right-and-hit-it-really-quite-hard shtick helping the Magpies to the brink of unlikely survival. Since the end of January he has scored four Premier League goals in a struggling side; in the same period both Walcott and Lingard have scored twice.
As I wrote last month: ‘While some have waltzed into St James’ wearing tuxedos and an air of superiority, Townsend has arrived with his sleeves rolled up and the knowledge that he has the chance to become a hero at a massive club. Barring an England career that could become a bizarre career footnote, Townsend has been Mr Not Quite, bouncing around loan clubs without ever being truly loved. Spurs fans have never sung about ‘one of their own’ with Townsend on the ball. Literally nobody mourned his £12m exit.’
In a squad that screams ‘much of a muchness’, Townsend is one of the few potential match-winners. With him on the pitch – presumably as an impact sub – nobody will be left wondering what would have happened if only somebody had taken a shot. With their left foot. Really hard.
* As we wrote in the last ladder: ‘Walcott has scored four competitive international goals in the last seven-and-a-half years. Half of those were as a substitute against San Marino.’ Since that was written, he has not started a single Premier League game and has scored just once in a 4-0 win over Watford.
At the age of 27, Walcott potentially has another three major tournaments with England. If he has any hope of actually kicking a ball in a World Cup, he desperately needs to move clubs – coasters are really only useful if you have hot drinks and a nice table.
* Anybody suggesting Defoe as a replacement for Welbeck has really not been paying attention; in each of his last three England starts, Welbeck has started wide. As much as his goal record (14 in 30 under Hodgson) was prized by the England manager, so was his diligence and application. When people spoke and wrote about a replacement for Welbeck, they missed the point: Welbeck is irreplaceable. It’s easy to talk in disparaging terms about Welbeck being a ‘favourite’ of the England manager, but he is a favourite for a reason – he is really bloody effective.
So to ‘replace’ a hard-working but effective wide forward with an instinctive finisher who contributes little outside the box would be absurd. Townsend is by no means the perfect option but he is the closest alternative to Welbeck, who was probably on a Hodgson mental list of ‘four players I really cannot do without’. Also on that list: Joe Hart, Chris Smalling and Harry Kane.
* ‘What more could Jermain Defoe do?’ is the cry and the answer is literally ‘nothing’. It did not matter a jot whether Defoe scored five, 15 or 25 goals this season, Hodgson was never going to call up a player he consigned to the dustbin before the 2014 World Cup. Those who are harumphing about big-club bias are bitterly looking for conspiracy and controversy when this was a joyous inclusion steeped in hope. Rashford is exciting in a way which Defoe can never now be. Rashford is a phenomenal finisher (88% shot accuracy in the Premier League) but he is so much more: He takes on defenders, he is fearless, he is fast, and he is so very young that we have literally no idea how wonderful he could be. I like having an England manager who would choose unpredictable hope over a 33-year-old with an admittedly excellent finish.
* “It’s great to be able to include him. There’s no reason why he can’t knock someone off their perch, but it will be harder than some people might expect,” said Hodgson and that perfectly encapsulates the beauty of this Rashford inclusion. Nobody is expecting the 18-year-old to actually make it to France, but the door is ajar. Should he score in a friendly against Australia and – crucially, because this is the part we are all inclined to forget when we claim to have a better idea than the manager – impress in training, Hodgson may just wonder whether he really needs two right-backs. Both Rashford and Hodgson have a shot to nothing.
* So let’s talk right-backs. Traditionally, international managers take only one specialist right-back to a major tournament but Hodgson seems inclined to travel with both Walker and Nathaniel Clyne, with at least four other options – Eric Dier, John Stones, James Milner, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling (if you’re Brendan Rodgers and you want to make a point) – in the squad. An embarrassment of riches or Hodgson simply not trusting either? Three starts each for Walker and Clyne in England’s last six games and November reports suggesting that he was considering Stones for the role at Euro 2016 would suggest the latter.
Hodgson has picked 12 different players at right-back during his England reign – this is one very real area of concern. Walker has improved this season but ostensibly only because Eric Dier has offered cover from defensive midfield; his best chance of ‘winning’ this particular battle may lie with the inclusion of his Tottenham teammate. Clyne is certainly the more accomplished pure defender but Hodgson has been unimpressed with a seemingly presumptuous attitude – last April he spoke to the press about conversations with his manager and suggested he was untouchable. He has since been put firmly in his place.
It feels like Hodgson craves one right-back he trusts but is stuck with two from which he must choose the least worst option. Not ideal.
* Taking only dedicated centre-halves is unusual but it is based on logic. In 2010, fourth-choice centre-half Michael Dawson did not play a minute. In 2012, third and fourth-choice centre-halves Phil Jagielka and Phil Jones did not play a minute. Only in 2014 – when we were abject – did the reserve centre-halves take to the field in the final dead rubber. There was little point in wasting a squad place on Jagielka when he would only see the pitch if there was a glut of injuries. Dier provides perfectly adequate back-up as potential cover in three positions. Phil Jones, that could have been you.
* We have to assume now that both Jagielka and Leighton Baines have played their last games for England. How will history view Baines’ 30-game England career? That he was England’s first-choice left-back for almost three years but he played in only two major tournament games – both defeats – feels kind of fitting.
That he is being at least temporarily replaced by either Ryan Bertrand and Danny Rose is a massive shame; England is now ready for Luke Shaw after the inadequate Baines bridge from the Ashley Cole era.
* There is literally nobody who is not underwhelmed by the inclusion of Delph, even if we assume that he will be one of the players staying at home if Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson prove their fitness. Even Fabian Delph is underwhelmed by the inclusion of Fabian Delph; he too hopes Wilshere proves his fitness because he is England’s finest midfielder when fit.
Delph has played 756 Premier League minutes this season. That’s fewer minutes than Rashford, and we did not even know he existed three months ago.
It is undoubtedly underwhelming but it should also be utterly unsurprising that Delph has been included. A list of players who made more appearances for England than Delph in Euro 2016 qualifying is surprisingly short: Joe Hart, Gary Cahill, Raheem Sterling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wayne Rooney. Put like that, it’s a wonder that we’re expecting him to be culled at the end of May.
* Drawing comparisons between Wilshere’s inclusion and that of injured players in previous tournaments is unhelpful – Wilshere has started two Premier League games and looked sharp. This is no 2010 Gareth Barry. And a fit Wilshere is England’s finest central midfielder bar none. In eight England matches he has started since the World Cup of 2014, they have not lost a single game.
Played as the deepest man in midfield, Wilshere has been zealous in the tackle, excellent with the ball at his feet under pressure and quick to look forward in possession. Dier is capable of taking on some of Wilshere’s workload, and Drinkwater equipped to take on the rest, but there is no other English player who can replicate the job Wilshere has done for England.
Losing a year’s football may actually turn out to be a blessing for England once Wilshere has another three games under his belt ahead of Euro 2016. Hodgson has openly admitted that some have played too much football this season (naming no names, Harry) so he may be secretly pleased that at least one of his squad will be early-season fresh.
* Back to the ladder to address the Carrick question: ‘It’s all very well bemoaning Carrick’s lack of international recognition, but that doesn’t change the salient fact: He turns 35 in July. If Carrick played in the Euros, he’d be England’s seventh-oldest outfield player in the last 30 years. Stuart Pearce, Teddy Sheringham, Frank Lampard, Martin Keown, Peter Beardsley and Ian Wright are the answers to your next question.’
Pearce may have argued that Carrick is still England’s best midfielder on Sky Sports last week but this is a man who has previously considered Fraizer Campbell good enough for England and David James an excellent choice as striker for Manchester City. He should be ignored.
“I wouldn’t dream of putting Michael on a standby list after he has made it clear in the past he doesn’t want to be involved like that,” said Hodgson four years ago. Little has changed except Carrick is four years older and four years slower. If you’re going to make up the numbers in midfield, a presumably grateful Danny Drinkwater is the more humane option.
* The real question mark should be over the inclusion of Henderson, who has literally never played well for England. For a man with 23 caps, that is some feat. If you want to talk big-club bias, I am happy to listen to your arguments on Henderson, who has started every competitive game for which he has been fit since the disastrous World Cup of 2014.
Liverpool have five players in this 26-man squad and if you think that sounds like over-representation from a team in eighth place then I would agree. There should be a rule whereby only one of Henderson or Milner can ever be picked, and the form and fitness of the latter should have made this a no-brainer. Henderson’s injury was Hodgson’s chance to end a relationship to which Henderson has brought the square root of bugger all. That chance has probably gone.
* There was never any real question mark over the inclusion of Raheem Sterling – he has more than enough credit in the bank – but we can take a minute to ask exactly where he stands in this squad, having started just one Premier League game in the last two months. Six months ago I would have predicted that Sterling and Welbeck – fitness permitting – would start either side of Wayne Rooney in the opening game of Euro 2016. Now there is the very real possibility that we will see Harry Kane central with Rooney and Jamie Vardy either side. Or a change of formation to accommodate Rooney and Dele Alli behind Kane. It’s difficult to see Sterling now as anything other than a substitute vying with Townsend to come off the bench and inject some pace.
‘It’s not unreasonable to think that heading into a major tournament not being viewed as England’s One Great Hope might be a good thing for both player and team,’ said the ladder last time around. Fingers crossed.
* England’s five strikers have scored 68 Premier League goals between them in this campaign – with Sturridge and Rashford playing roughly a third of a season each. Two years ago, England took four strikers to the World Cup who had scored 60 goals in total and one of those strikers was Rickie Lambert, a Plan B for Bloody Desperate who played a grand total of three minutes in Brazil. Things are looking much, much brighter at that end of the pitch.
Looking at that list of defenders – comprising four middling Premier League full-backs and three error-prone centre-halves – we may well need to score three goals to win every game. Good luck, fellas.
* This time last year, none of Tom Heaton, Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Danny Drinkwater, Jamie Vardy or Marcus Rashford had been called up by England. At least two of that list would have p***ed themselves laughing at the suggestion that they could go to Euro 2016. And people still say Hodgson is a stick in the mud…