World Cup 2014: Examining Which Midfielders England Could Take to Brazil
The 2014 World Cup looks to be an unusual international tournament for England. The usual sky-high and unrealistic expectations for the team appear to have been tempered—at least for the meantime—by England boss Roy Hodgson’s pragmatic style, yet not since the heyday of the “Golden Generation” of the early 2000s has the national team boasted such a comprehensive wealth of talent.
The midfield is perhaps the most hotly contested area on the pitch, so we’re looking at which of these 22 hopefuls will be on the plane come June.
The most exciting prospect to come out of Everton’s storied youth academy since a certain Wayne Rooney, Ross Barkley has been one of the standouts for the Toffees in their battle for Champions League football this season.
Aged just 20, Barkley has been a mainstay of Roberto Martinez’s midfield this season, with the Spanish manager calling him a mix of Paul Gascoigne and Michael Ballack. His England career is still in its infancy, but despite none of his three caps being starts, he seems likely to receive the nod, particularly as he was featured in the official launch of England’s World Cup strips.
Unlike Manchester City teammate Jack Rodwell, Gareth Barry took his opportunity to go out on loan ahead of the World Cup and put himself in the line of sight of the selectors.
However, as many have noted, the perceived lack of possibility for England to actually win the tournament should be offset by blooding the youth and giving them invaluable experience. With Barry now 33 and unlikely to be in contention by the time Euro 2016 roles around, it seems shortsighted to consider him over some of the younger options.
Additionally, Barry, while excellent at performing the deep-lying playmaker role, is largely limited to the one role, and with places in the squad at such a premium most would be content for Michael Carrick to fill such a specific criteria.
Michael Carrick has endured—along with the rest of the Manchester United squad—a frustrating campaign, particularly following his winning of the team’s Players' Player of the Year award the previous season.
Still an excellent player on his day, Carrick would still be an asset in the middle of the park, particularly with pace and movement in front of him—a feature that has been absent for much of Manchester United’s season. However, the very particular role he plays and his lack of versatility could count against him, with Hodgson seeming to prefer the hustle and bustle of Carrick’s teammate Tom Cleverley.
Add in the fact that Carrick ruled himself out of Euro 2012 as he “did not want to be sitting on the subs’ bench”—surely the best he can realistically hope for in Brazil—and it’s questionable whether Hodgson will even give him the option this time around.
The public have had their say—resoundingly so—over whether Manchester United midfielder Tom Cleverley should be on the plane to Brazil, and although Hodgson stoically defended him at the time, you get the feeling that the Three Lions’ faithful will get their way here.
On paper, 22 league appearances at the heart of the United midfield looks like a strong credential for selection, but a closer look reveals that Cleverley essentially played his way out of ex-United boss David Moyes’ plans—he has featured just three times in the past two months despite no real injuries.
Considering that the likes of Wilshere, Barkley and Milner are all capable of playing a similar role too, and it seems that despite picking up 10 full caps under Hodgson, Cleverley may well find himself sat at home come June.
It’s an old truism that unfortunately, for players not plying their trade at the top clubs, it’s much harder to get noticed for international duty. Delph has been one of the few bright spots in another underwhelming campaign for Aston Villa.
Few players have averaged more tackles in this season’s Premier League, particularly from midfield, and as far as out-and-out defensive midfielders go—although Delph has operated in a box-to-box role for Villa as well—England aren’t exactly blessed in that department. Should they find themselves needing to close games out, he could be just what the team needs to shore up the centre of the pitch.
That being said, he has never been capped, and taking an untested player would be very unlike the methodical Hodgson.
Few England players have come in for more stick over the years than Stewart Downing. A huge prospect during his time at Middlesbrough and Aston Villa, his move to Liverpool in 2011 became emblematic of Kenny Dalglish’s overspending and underwhelming transfer policy, as he infamously went his entire first season without a single goal or assist to show for his efforts.
Now at West Ham, Downing’s form has improved—he averages more crosses in the league than anyone else—although he still suffers from a chronic lack of consistency. A fairly regular squad member until the end of the 2012 season, his transfer to Upton Park, despite bringing him more game time, seems to have put him out of favour. With Lallana, Sterling, and Oxlade-Chamberlain ahead of him in the pecking order, he seems unlikely to get the call.
Having played a vital role in Liverpool’s unexpected title charge this season, Gerrard has looked revitalised after being given a more focused, defensively minded role for both Liverpool and England.
While there may be some concerns over the captain’s emotional state following his mistake, few players have proven their mental fortitude like Gerrard has over the years. Regardless of what happens in the title race, the Liverpool skipper will be more than ready when the team walk out in Manaus.
In a Liverpool team packed with glittering talent, the fact that Jordan Henderson has been able to stand out at all is a feat in itself—not least because following his £20m transfer to Merseyside he was widely considered a major flop.
Like the team, Henderson has flourished under Brendan Rodger’s tutelage, and he has provided a metronomic presence in the centre of the park, the ying to the yang of the eye-watering, frenetic approach of Sterling, Suarez and Sturridge.
The fact he isn’t the most eye-catching player will, if anything, stand him in good stead with Hodgson, who prefers reliability and consistency over flashes of brilliance. Just one start under the former West Brom boss at international level has been complemented with six substitute appearances, suggesting he could see his fair share of action off the bench.
Along with Curtis Davis, Tom Huddlestone has been one of the stars of Hull’s return to the Premier League. Having never truly been given an extended run in the Tottenham side, Huddlestone has thrived with a starting role, averaging out as one of the most prolific tacklers and passers in the league.
However, now aged 27 and holding just a solitary cap under Hodgson, it seems that only a major injury crisis would force Huddlestone’s selection.
His lack of mobility and agility will undoubtedly count against him too; with swift counter-attacking football in vogue at the moment, England will need to ensure that they have the personnel to deal with speed.
Adam Johnson’s career has faltered since he first burst onto the scene with Middlesbrough. Having made the leap to newly moneyed Manchester City in 2010, he found himself limited to a smattering of appearances, and he failed to rediscover his best form upon his move to Sunderland at the start of 2012 season.
That was until midway through the current campaign, when he suddenly got going again, putting in several good performances in a struggling Sunderland side and winning the Premier League Player of the Month award for January after scoring a hat-trick away to Fulham.
However, despite this superb form, Johnson wasn’t called up for the latest squad to face Denmark, and with his performances of late not being so noteworthy, it seems that he won't be a part of Hodgson’s plans.
One of the standout performers in the Premier League this season, Lallana—along with Southampton teammate Luke Shaw and Everton’s Seamus Coleman—was one of only three players in the PFA Team of the Year not from Chelsea, Manchester City or Liverpool.
Lallana will almost certainly find himself on the plane to Brazil. As well as operating at a consistently high level this term, his versatility in being able to operate on either wing will give Hodgson plenty of options, particularly if the need to change tactics on the fly arises.
Lallana has also chipped in with valuable goals—nine in the league this season—which could prove vital should Hodgson persist with the 4-3-3 formation he used throughout qualification.
A fixture of the England team since 2003, Frank Lampard has frequently been criticised for failing to recreate his Chelsea form on the international stage. However, despite this, he has amassed 10 starts under Hodgson, with only two other midfielders—Gerrard and Milner—being more consistent features in the starting XI.
One of the most enduring conundrums—and frustrations—for England supporters has been the inability of Gerrard and Lampard, respectively two of the best midfielders in the world in their prime, to perform together for their country. Hodgson seems to have at least partly solved this puzzle by imposing some strict demarcation on the centre of midfield, with Gerrard most frequently playing deep, with Lampard ahead of him.
However, regardless of this tactical improvement, Lampard’s significant talents have noticeably waned this season. Barring a goal glut in Chelsea’s remaining matches, this will be the first season that Lampard has failed to register double figures in 11 years, and now, aged 35, there must be question marks surrounding his ability to perform in harsh conditions after a long season.
There are few more curious cases in the England midfield debate than Aaron Lennon. Tremendously gifted and a perennial feature in a strong Spurs side for nine seasons, Lennon in a classic example of a prodigiously talented youth who simply never really kicked on.
Still blessed with lightning pace and numerous tricks up his sleeve, Lennon’s Achilles’ heel is his decision making and final ball, as a solitary goal and just three assists all season in club football attest.
While Theo Walcott’s injury-enforced absence from the squad may have given Lennon a glimmer of hope, Raheem Sterling’s emergence may well have put paid to his chances.
While not likely to be the first name on people’s lips when discussing England’s midfield talents, Milner is a certainty to feature in Brazil this summer. Only Joe Hart has more caps under Hodgson, who is a long-time admirer of Milner’s consistency and work ethic.
Milner is capable of playing in both midfield and attack in Hodgson’s preferred 4-3-3 formation, making him a huge asset for when a sudden tactical change is required. Better yet for England is Milner’s relative freshness—he has started just 13 league games this term, with Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini preferring to use him off the bench.
A prodigious talent who has been compared to the legendary Paul Gascoigne—even if he doesn’t know who Gazza actually is—Ravel Morrison has never been capped, but some have commented that he could be Hodgson’s wildcard choice, similar to Theo Walcott at the 2006 World Cup.
However, most of these suggestions were made at the beginning of the season when it was assumed that Morrison would be playing in the Premier League for West Ham. Following a sensation goal against Spurs at White Hart Lane in October, everything appeared to be going to plan.
However, with his troublesome attitude frustrating Sam Allardyce as it had Sir Alex Ferguson, he fell out of favour and found himself on loan at Championship side QPR. Despite winning the March Player of the Month award, England's second tier simply isn’t the platform for a player with true World Cup aspirations.
Despite another season blighted by injury, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain should find himself on the plane come June. While his performances have been limited for Arsenal, he has shown strong development over the course of the season, emerging as one of the side’s best performers.
One of the most-capped players under Hodgson, his versatility is the key to his popularity with the current England manager. A potent mix of pace and power means he is equally at home in the centre of the pitch or his traditional position on the wing. Like Sterling, “the Ox” has the potential to be a real asset coming off the bench, particularly given the adverse conditions expected.
A late bloomer as far as international footballers go—15 of his 18 caps have come since he turned 30—Scott Parker looks like, at least on the international stage, his age may be catching up with him.
Having switched top-four chasing Spurs for relegation-battling Fulham at the beginning on the campaign, Parker has put in some strong performances for Felix Magath’s side, but the lack of exposure that comes from playing with a lower-table team combined with several younger players—such as Wilshere and Delph—capable of performing in the same role mean that he is unlikely to see action in Brazil this summer.
Rewinding back to the start of the last World Cup, most would have expected Jack Rodwell to be a fixture of the national side by the time Brazil rolled around. At the tender age of 19, he had played almost 40 times that season for Everton in all competitions and looked destined for big things.
Four years later and, if anything, he has regressed. Just 15 league appearances in the last two years are a result of his decision to move to title-challenging Manchester City. This lack of football, while a blessing in disguise for teammate James Milner’s hopes of selection, will have been the hammer blow to Rodwell’s chances. He simply hasn’t shown anything near enough to warrant inclusion.
Like some others in this list, Jonjo Shelvey was—up until scoring a goal of the season contender against Aston Villa last month—best known as being the butt of Liverpool fans' jokes. However, despite a few wobbles, such as inadvertently assisting two Liverpool goals several months after leaving them, Shelvey has shone in a side famed for their continental style.
That being said, with just 24 minutes of international football against San Marino to his name and a questionable temperament in big games, there’s no way of telling how he’d bear up when faced by the best international sides that the world has to offer.
A critical player in Liverpool’s expansive attacking system, Sterling came to the fore during the Reds’ recent 11-match winning streak. Unlike Milner and Lallana, Sterling is very much a winger in the more traditional mold, utilising pace and trickery, hugging the touchline and with an insatiable desire to beat opposing defenders.
While he may struggle to displace Hodgson’s preferred top three—Rooney, Sturridge and Welbeck—his blistering pace would certainly add a new dimension to the attack, and with nine goals in just 22 starts for his club, he certainly wouldn't have a problem slotting into an advanced role.
While he has proven to be a player of maturity beyond his years, there are still some lingering doubts about his readiness to step up to the international game. He has just two caps to his name and last season began brightly before fading away, raising questions about his ability to sustain his high-tempo performances into the World Cup.
Undoubtedly a major talent, Jack Wilshere would have been quietly confident of his place in the squad following his man of the match performance in the victory over Brazil at Wembley in February last year.
However, an injury-hit campaign, plus his overshadowing in the Arsenal midfield by the superb performances of Aaron Ramsey have put his place in doubt.
Under Hodgson, Wilshere has made just six starts at international level and completed the 90 minutes just twice. In the anticipated sweltering conditions in Brazil, Hodgson will want to try and ensure he has as fit a squad as possible—a factor that could seriously count against Wilshere.
Another play who, like Tom Cleverley, may well have played himself out of contention under David Moyes, the much-maligned Ashley Young has found himself out of favour at Old Trafford in recent times, making just five league appearances in the last two months.
Drilling down further into Young’s statistics for this season reveals various reasons for his disappearance from the United starting line-up. One assist all season is damning for a winger, particularly one playing in a system which such an emphasis on wide play. Young has averaged just 0.8 crosses and 22.8 passes a match in the league—for comparisons sake, teammate Michael Carrick has averaged almost three times the passes from the United midfield, albeit in a different role.