By Shane Thomas
With the domestic season reaching its finale, attention begins to turn to this summer's European Championship in Poland and the Ukraine. Yesterday, new England manager Roy Hodgson selected his squad of 23 for the tournament, which as always with England squads, has provoked debate and consternation in some quarters. So let's go through the squad, and see where Hodgson got it right, and wrong:
Joe Hart (Manchester City), Robert Green (West Ham United), John Ruddy (Norwich City)
Once an area of solidity and certainty for English football, the standard of goalkeeping on these shores has been going through something of a fallow period. The first shoots of recovery have appeared with the impressive and formidable Joe Hart in goal. However, beyond him, the cupboard remains bare. Hodgson has earmarked Green as the next taxi off the rank, but he had a miserable beginning to his season with West Ham, and seems only to have made the squad due to the fact that he's played for England before, even if it wasn't with much distinction.
John Ruddy has showed some impressive displays for Norwich, and their fans will be delighted to see him make the final squad - if not his fiancee, as Ruddy is due to be married on June 2nd - but he has been inconsistent, and seems to lack the necessary experience to command his penalty area. England's fortunes remain precarious in goal. They are likely to be put under severe defensive duress, especially in the opening match against France. If Hart is absent for any reason, England stand little chance of getting through matches without conceding.
Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Ashley Cole (Chelsea), Leighton Baines (Everton), Phil Jones (Manchester United), John Terry (Chelsea), Joleon Lescott (Manchester City), Glen Johnson (Liverpool)
The headlines have focused on Rio Ferdinand's absence from the list. But Hodgson was in an invidious position the second that the English legal authorities decided to prioritise Chelsea's season over the pursuit of law. Knowing that having both Ferdinand and John Terry in the squad was not an option, he was going to be criticised no matter which one of the two he plumped for. Some believe that both Terry and Ferdinand are relics of an era of mediocrity, and should have both stayed at home. However, as stated earlier, England are likely to come under a lot of pressure defensively, and as such, an experienced head could be invaluable. Also, Hodgson may want to replicate the centre-half partnership that kept out Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals, by pairing Terry with Gary Cahill. Add that to Ferdinand's propensity to break down when playing a number of games in a short space of time, and you can see why Hodgson decided to go with the Chelsea captain.
As for the full-backs, in lieu of the injured Kyle Walker, some have also bemoaned the non-selection of Manchester City's Micah Richards. Hodgson has instead gone for Glen Johnson, with Phil Jones's versatility making him the back-up. Personally I think this is a non-story, as Johnson, Richards and Walker are much of a muchness. They all can be effective going forward, but - for differing reasons - none are particularly reliable when defending.
One area where England will feel comfortable is at left-back. Ashley Cole has had one of his weaker seasons, which given his advancing years is understandable. But he remains one of the finest exponents in the position, and with Leighton Baines seeming to have gotten over his homesickness - which cost him a place in England's World Cup squad - they have adequate back-up should Cole pick up an injury or a suspension.
Gareth Barry (Manchester City), Stewart Downing (Liverpool), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arsenal), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), James Milner (Manchester City), Scott Parker (Tottenham), Ashley Young (Manchester United), Theo Walcott (Arsenal)
This was an area of the team that 6-12 months ago, people would have looked to a new generation of younger players to stake their claim. But injury put paid to the hopes of Jack Rodwell, Tom Cleverley, and most pertinently of all, Jack Wilshere. The likes of Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry are still there (and don't be surprised to see them in England's starting XI on June 11th).
Personally I think Michael Carrick is unlucky to miss out. With Paul Scholes still in international retirement, Carrick has had a fine season, and remains England's most reliable and perceptive passer. Yes, his big-match temperament is questionable, but then, couldn't you say that about quite a few of the players in this squad?
Along with James Milner (the ever-willing foot soldier), Hodgson could be accused of having a sterile selection policy, but the inclusion of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could refute that. It largely depends which players actually get time off the bench this summer. I'd expect Theo Walcott and Ashley Young to start in the wide positions, but when a change is needed, it will be intriguing to see Hodgson's mindset. Does he bring on Milner or Stewart Downing (a baffling choice to make the 23), or does he go for Oxlade-Chamberlain as his impact sub? Whichever way Hodgson goes could be key in determining whether England make it to the knockout stages.
Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Danny Welbeck (Manchester United), Jermain Defoe (Tottenham), Andy Carroll (Liverpool)
While Wayne Rooney was always going to be selected, as he may be needed for a rescue job when England play the Ukraine, it was a straight two-way fight for each of the three remaining squad positions.
For the role of tall target-man, Hodgson went for Andy Carroll over Peter Crouch, which I broadly agree with. International tournaments are about peaking at the right time, and there's no doubt that Carroll is in a rich vein of form right now. While Crouch has an impressive scoring rate for England, and has been treated pretty shabbily by managers in the past, he lacks the athleticism to stretch a defence, and will nullify the pace that England have in wide areas.
As for the young tyro up-front, it was either going to be Danny Welbeck or Daniel Sturridge. Once I again, I think Hodgson chose right. For much of this season, I felt that the England manager had to find a place for Sturridge. But while he shows plenty of promise, and has that unquantifiable bit of "devil" that can unlock any defence, his lack of nous is alarming. His display against Arsenal in April probably sealed his place on the beach rather than England's bench, as he seemed unwilling to pass to a teammate, and often failed to make the most of promising situations. In international football, more than at any other level of the game, profligacy is unacceptable. Welbeck, on the other hand, has shown a great deal more maturity. Often having to lead the line for Manchester United - while lacking the spark of Sturridge - he possesses good mobility, technique and energy. He may not light up these championships, but Euro 2012 should be a positive step in Welbeck's development.
The final spot was for a goal-poacher. And while Darren Bent was impressive in qualifying (bar some woeful finishing against Switzerland at Wembley), he's been the victim of cruel luck with injury - which reminds me of Ian Wright's travails in an England shirt. Bent has declared himself fit, but then what else would he say? "Sorry boss, physically I'm fine, but I'm not sure how match sharp I'll be come the Euros." Bent may be 100% fit, but he's not match-fit. And for someone like him, who does all his best work in the penalty box, you can't rely on someone needing to shake off ring-rust before he becomes productive. England have done this unsuccessfully for too many major tournaments to make this mistake again.
Jermain Defoe is a limited striker, but he remains the best finisher in the 23. And when England are in the closing stages of a game, desperately needing a goal - of which, you can be sure, will happen at some stage - Defoe is the best English option who's physically in the right condition to be selected.
And this sums up a lot of the current issues with English football. You can disparage this squad as average and uninspiring, but what else were you expecting? It's not as if there's a clutch of gems that are being left at home. There's a reason why this appears to be an ordinary squad. Because England are an ordinary team.
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