England face Ecuador in Miami on Wednesday, still with plenty of questions to address before the World Cup starts. With just one further friendly before their opening game against Italy, the pressure is really starting to grow now.
They did what they had to do in their last game, against Peru at Wembley. Peru aren’t the greatest team in the world—they struggled in their own qualification process, and they haven’t qualified for a tournament for a long time—so really it was a nice little tune-up for everyone in the squad to get used to their new team-mates.
I wouldn’t read too much into it, but obviously the big question coming out of that game remains Wayne Rooney. Personally, as I said a few months ago, I would not have Rooney in my team, because the way Roy Hodgson wants to play—and the way most teams play these days—is with just one striker.
Now if you are one of the strongest outfits you can play with two strikers, but England are not in the position to do that. So why play one player out of position, when you have other players there who are better equipped to help the team?
That means Hodgson has to make a straight decision between Daniel Sturridge and Rooney. If he picks Rooney then fair enough, that’s his call. But I think on this season’s form, and the way England want to play, you have to go with Sturridge.
With his pace in behind, his movement and finishing nous, he is a perfect fit for what they want to do.
The back four picks itself at this point, with Joe Hart and Steven Gerrard also established in their respective roles. I would now tend toward Jack Wilshere over Jordan Henderson to partner Gerrard, just because he’s more technically gifted and I think he is a real asset if you are trying to retain the ball. If the conditions are as heavy as we expect in Brazil, that is going to be very important.
As I’ve said before—and mentioned on Twitter on Friday—I think Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley are musts. Sterling was Liverpool’s best player for the final three months of the season, and he is one of the most promising youngsters in Europe.
Personally I’d then play Barkley behind the main striker. He’s young, he’s hungry and he’s had a fantastic season for Everton. He carries himself in an arrogant way, but in a good way, in an assertive way.
Adam Lallana then gives England something they haven’t had for 10 years: A player like David Silva, who can create a chance out of nothing. Obviously he’s not in Silva’s league, but he has that guile and creativity to unlock a defence that England have lacked for a long time.
If you include him, then you would have the pace of Sterling, the ingenuity of Lallana, and the drive of Barkley behind a striker up front, Sturridge, who runs teams ragged.
As an opposition player, that is a team that I would think, “Wow, we are really going to be in a game here.” I have not felt that with a lot of England teams in the past, even when they had some of the biggest names in their side.
I think France coach Didier Deschamps hit the nail on the head when he dropped Samir Nasri and said something along the lines: “I’m not picking the best players, I’m picking the best team.”
For France there is even a question about whether Franck Ribery goes to the World Cup, because he has been struggling with injury—and he was the third best player in the world in 2013!
It goes to show that it does not matter who you are, if you do not want to sacrifice a little bit of your individuality for the team, or you are not 100 per cent ready for the tournament, then you should not be involved.
That’s the point England need to get to, picking solely on form and fitness and not reputation. For too long this has not been the case for England—whether it is going to be different this year, I guess we will soon find out.
Sterling and Barkley are controversial inclusions for some, but there’s no reason not to push them forward as much as possible. Germany would love one young player with their ability right now, and if they did, that individual would be given every chance to start by Jogi Loew.
Now if that’s the case for Germany, then surely Sterling and Barkley should have half a chance with England!
Sometimes I think there is a lack of faith. You want experience at the back, of course you do in a big tournament, but you don’t need it in attack. You want speed of thought and foot, so you can stretch teams and put them on the back foot. That’s the priority above all, and that’s why Sturridge is preferable to Rooney if you only play one up top.
Sturridge can go in behind, he can run the channels much better than Rooney, all of which will open space for Lallana and others to operate in.
The problem with England is that they have hyped players up so much in the past, making them into something that they are not. They’ve done that for years and years with so many players who did not live up to expectations, and now I think they’ve become cautious and don’t truly realise how good these two players actually are.
Because they are in a different league to ones how have been hyped up before—they are the real deal.
Perhaps it’s not a bad thing, because it gives them a bit more time to develop, but Sterling and Barkley are already two of the best young players in the world.
Look at Rooney himself—his best tournament for England was his first, at Euro 2004, when he was still a fearless teenager who terrorised defences with his direct running. Since then, however, his record has not been great—he has not scored in his two previous World Cup tournaments.
Scoring is not everything—a goalless striker can still play his part if a team gets to the semi-finals or final—but I’ve seen no indications over the last two years to suggest you should pick Rooney over Sturridge.