Today, the faithful England fans woke up to the news that not only would Ballon D’Or nominee Jamie Vardy be injured in the upcoming friendly against France at Wembley, but that he would be replaced by Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard by boss Roy Hodgson. While the British punditry team have a wonderful knack for hyperbole (Martin Tyler, only two days ago, declared England ‘spoilt for choice’ in centre backs- a generation of John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Ledley King and Jamie Carragher, now spoilt by Phil Jagielka), it’s hard to see even them justify for Lingard’s inclusion, beyond simple Hodgsonian logic. While this is only a friendly, this is at the very earliest when England should be playing their strongest team. And while Hodgson will undoubtedly the man that takes us into, and very quickly out of, France, England really should be looking to the future.
Hodgson came on the back of the surprise resignation of Fabio Capello, who left over the FA’s bizarre treatment of John Terry. While he had almost no time to manage England, and thus can be forgiven for what was a solid, if not inspiring, showing in Poland, Hodgson definitely punched above his weight. A good couple of seasons with the likes of Fulham, who admittedly he took to a Europa League final, and West Brom, were the only real high points of an almost 40-year career in management (seriously).
But looking at his management of England, Hodgson hasn’t really been too bad. The debacle in Brazil aside (in which they were the better team against Italy, and let themselves down against Uruguay), England have qualified with ease to France 2016, albeit in a poor group. Hodgson has done a good enough job. But is ‘good enough’ good enough (take a minute)? England needed the goals of Andros Townsend to make qualification for Brazil comfortable. They haven’t really been tested by any of the teams they’ve played, and were very obviously outclassed by Spain.
Instead, look at England’s progression since 2012, and in particular their squad selection. Hodgson is prone to serious errors, particularly when it comes to automatically picking players from ‘big clubs’. Whilst some players (Rooney, Sturridge, Henderson, Milner) pick themselves, Jesse Lingard is another inclusion, along the same lines as Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana and Andros Townsend, who are picked to the squad simply through who they represent. Nathan Redmond is a fine player who will never get an England chance. Wilfried Zaha could easily bring the work rate that matchstick man Danny Welbeck gives for England. Conversely, Andy Carroll was leading the line for England in Euro 2012, he hasn’t had one call-up since he moved to West Ham (please don’t mention his fitness, we all know he was rubbish). Glen Johnson was, unfortunately, England’s first choice right-back until his move to Stoke.
Phil Jones is an embarrassment in centre back. Of the current United players in the squad, it’s only Chris Smalling who merits a place in the starting line-up. Rooney is only playing by virtue of being captain. Michael Carrick was found out, as with many times in his career, by quick passing. It’s the same with Arsenal. Theo Walcott hasn’t developed since he was in his early 20s. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is still prone to losing the ball. Danny Welbeck, when fit, is a lot of running, and that’s it. The same with Liverpool. Jordan Henderson, for better or worse, is England’s best central midfielder. James Milner will always find a place in a Hodgson system. Sturridge is no longer a young prospect, but should be fit far more often than he is. But Adam Lallana seems to have made an England career of being caught in possession. Chelsea startling lack of England players means only Gary Cahill is there, who needs a faster centre back to pair up with- something not provided by Phil Jagielka. As a manager, you are judged by your choices and tactics.
As follows, Hodgson must be judged on the decision not to take Ashley Cole to Brazil. His age was an issue, yes, but that age brought the experience of multiple trophies. Baines, despite an excellent season, had very little international experience and none in the Champions League. It’s hard to believe that Cole would be taken out of the game in the way that Leighton Baines was by Matteo Darmian. It’s harder to fathom that Hodgson also decided to take Luke Shaw, a little boy, to a World Cup. While Shaw is bound to be an excellent player, he wasn’t in June 2014.
Hodgson must also be judged on his tactics. At the moment, England are very unbalanced. While it’s a symptom of English football to have great defenders, great midfielders, and great forwards, but never all three at the same time, Hodgson hasn’t really played a formation that suits anyone. Moving Rooney to the wing, and then back to the middle, was a gamble that didn’t really pay off, and instead alienated Raheem Sterling, England’s biggest threat. Raheem Sterling needs to be either an attacking midfielder, or a winger, not both in one game. Rooney is in the very worst form of his career, and needs a vast improvement to warrant his place in France, even over the untested Ross Barkley. If it sounds like I’m being hypocritical to promote Barkley whilst disparaging Shaw, youth and flair are more important in an attacking midfielder than in a full back. Hodgson always seems to want to play as the underdog in the big games.
Against Spain, defeat was a formality. Jones was probably too busy thinking about soil to see Mario Gaspar running into the box, and we all know of Joe Hart’s vulnerability to the overhead kick. England were then caught out by what was admittedly a wonderful finish by Santi Cazorla. John Stones needs to be put in at the deep end, with the experienced Chris Smalling. Shaw needs gradual introduction. Right-back remains a bit of an issue, but Kyle Walker should be an able replacement. But this is all closing the stable door. England have had this incredibly easy qualification group to get a feel for the squad. It all feels very rushed.
Like many in this current England squad, Jesse Lingard, with four appearances, has not merited his place. Michael Carrick was a good foil for the Paul Scholes and Darren Fletchers of Manchester United, but needs a better midfielder to help him out. Phil Jagielka, or Gary Cahill, need to be made third choice. In the centre, England have Henderson, and probably Fabian Delph, but where is their strong, authoritative midfielder to seize the game? As it stands, only three or four players are certain of a starting place in France. Is that really good enough?