Is Rickie Lambert a Viable Striking Solution for England and Roy Hodgson?
England ran out 3-2 winners over Scotland in an international friendly match on Wednesday, with the players on both sides getting a good warm-up in ahead of the start of the Premier League campaign on Saturday.
While the focus for the managers will have been on assessing their options ahead of the final bouts of World Cup qualifying matches, one name will be assessed beyond all others in the aftermath of the game: Southampton striker Rickie Lambert.
As recently as the 2004-05 season, Lambert was part of the Stockport County team which finished rock bottom of League One, joining Rochdale in League Two midway through that season. Fast forward to Wednesday evening, and he was scoring the winning goal for England against Scotland, with his very first touch as a senior international.
It was fairytale stuff, no question, but does it make Lambert a real option for Roy Hodgson at the highest level as England attempt to navigate their way to Brazil 2014?
Making the Squad
Lambert wasn't in the England squad by mistake; after two exceptional goalscoring seasons where he managed 48 goals in back-to-back promotion campaigns, he then helped the Saints stay in the Premier League last year with 15 goals in 38 matches.
While never a threat to the Golden Boot award, Lambert was actually the joint-highest-scoring English player in the entire Premier League.
His performances and reliability in hitting the target warranted further recognition, but even then he might not have won a place in this squad were it not for certain absentees.
Jermain Defoe was in the England squad, a regular face on the bench at worst, while a clearly unfit Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck started the match up front. Andy Carroll and Daniel Sturridge, however, were both missing through injury.
That was enough for Lambert to sneak in, and he certainly took his opportunity.
The Season Ahead
In terms of keeping his place, Lambert would do well to remember that the international landscape is littered with barely recalled names such as Michael Ricketts, Jay Bothroyd, Joey Barton and Francis Jeffers; players who were given a chance, hoped they'd taken it, but were never seen at the highest level of football again.
Lambert needs to have not just another good season, but an excellent one. It's not just about the goals, but equaling or exceeding his haul from last year will be important for his perceived success during the forthcoming season.
He's going to need to arguably be better than West Ham United's Andy Carroll, with the two perhaps going head-to-head for one spot in the squad to provide the so-called "Plan B" of attacking with brute force and powerful aerial presence. Though of course both, in their own styles, offer more than merely that.
Lambert brings a greater aerial threat than any other England forward in the current squad, as so ably demonstrated by his thumping header past Allan McGregor, but he also offers more in the buildup phases of the game than he's given credit for. Willing runners moving past him when Lambert drops deep or into the channels give him a target to aim for with a through pass—and it's worth noting the exceptional number of chances he created for Southampton last season.
As above, it looks as though his best chance of featuring again for England is to out-perform Andy Carroll in the Premier League and hope for another crack during the last few rounds of qualifying.
If he's called upon when England are struggling in Ukraine in September and comes up with the goods, there's at least a fair chance he'll be in Hodgson's thoughts when the vital doubleheader at home to Montenegro and Poland rolls around the following month.
It is likely that Lambert will be at best the backup option for England, someone to turn to when the pace of Sturridge or the genius of Rooney isn't helping unlock defences, or else when Hodgson's men are getting desperate late on in the game.
In terms of making the plane to Brazil, firstly England need to actually qualify, by no means a foregone conclusion at present.
Should Rickie Lambert stay in the England squad?
Is Lambert an option for Roy Hodgson and England? Yes. Is he going to be an England regular? Not hugely likely. If the manager is indeed relying on the Saints striker as the biggest threat off the bench then, with all respect to the player, England are probably going to be in trouble.
But there's definitely a role in the squad for a player to offer a completely different approach to attacking than the others, and forgetting Lambert's heading for a moment, probably only Daniel Sturridge is as capable of scoring from range as Lambert is.
He's also a phenomenal striker of a dead ball, is cool from the penalty spot—that could be handy—and seems to enjoy and appreciate the chance he's being handed.
There's much work ahead for the Southampton man, and he is very likely to be at best a one-tournament England international—but far and away from the bowels of the football league as he was almost a decade ago, that would be a huge step up from being merely a one-cap England international.
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