England Can Be Entertainers at the World Cup If Roy Hodgson Plays Young Stars

Janusz Michallik@@JanuszESPNFeatured ColumnistJune 9, 2014

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The blueprint for a normal England in the World Cup is well-known.

The Three Lions generally take a pragmatic, safety-first approach, based on an excellent work rate, as well as passing and quick transitions.

Let's be honest, though: It's a predictable style, one without imagination and not necessarily the kind that a proud nation like England, who invented the game, would wish for.

England might have the most entertaining league in the world in the Premier League, but they hardly have the most entertaining national team to match it.

Perhaps that's harsh, but I hope you understand what I mean. I'm not sure about you, but I think this year's team, led by Roy Hodgson, could have a different feel to it.

It's refreshing to see that Hodgson has included some of the young and exciting players England has to offer, such as Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley, and he deserves credit for selecting them. 

But for me, the bigger question is whether his tactical approach will be glass-half-full or glass-half-empty. In other words, will we see the conservative, pragmatic England we're used to seeing, or will we see an exciting England propelled forward by exciting, creative and talented youngsters? 

Because I think Hodgson and England have an opportunity. On one hand, of course, he will worry about his back four and want to protect them as much as he can. But I hope that, for a change, England will try to surprise the opposition and start with players who feel no pressure, players who don't know any better than to attack

See, that's the beauty of being young and not knowing any better. There's no weight of past failures on your shoulders. When you're a young player, you just go out there and play to the best of your ability, not necessarily worrying about what others might think.

England's Ross Barkley had a fine 2013-14 season with Everton.
England's Ross Barkley had a fine 2013-14 season with Everton.Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Even the English media, which will scrutinize every touch of the ball back home, may appreciate this sort of approach, regardless of the end result—because it would be done with the players of the future.

Take the players I mentioned above as a couple of examples. Think about how Sterling and Barkley played this season, and how Liverpool and Everton played. Think about the approach of their respective managers, Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez. Look at the style of football they played. England can do the same thing.

Progressive, forward-thinking managers already have recognized this in the Premier League. Rodgers and his brand of football allowed Sterling to flourish at Liverpool last season, even though at one point it looked like Rodgers might have had it with Sterling. 

There's absolutely no logical explanation as to why Sterling improved by such leaps and bounds in such a short time, breaking into a lineup that includes attacking players such as Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge.

Now, though, you could make the case that he's one of Liverpool's most important players, and the only explanation is that he's being allowed to do what he does best—that is, to attack and use his pace going forward without being shackled by a defend-at-all-costs mentality.

Let's not forget that England will have Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson in the middle. As teammates with Sterling at Liverpool, those two will appreciate what the youngster can do and will allow him to do what he can do going forward.

Barkley is another example of what England need. Like Rodgers, Martinez understands Barkley's strengths and what he brings to Everton going forward.

One can understand that Wayne Rooney will most likely play behind Sturridge, and maybe I shouldn't be wasting my time trying to convince you that Barkley should start instead of him against Italy.

Rooney is a great player, of course, and I think he's very capable of finally having a good World Cup. I will tell you this, though: If Rooney disappoints in the first game, he shouldn't get the benefit of the doubt again, as star players often do.

To me, even if Rooney fares well during the Italy match, it should be time to give Barkley a chance.

Barkley attacks without fear, takes players on and drives his team forward, and those qualities will be so important for England. Great players, like Rooney, always get the benefit of the doubt, but maybe it's time for Hodgson to rethink that. 

The bottom line here is that the normal, conservative English approach isn't going to work in Brazil. In these temperatures, in this environment, England won't be able to press the way they want to, and they won't be able to break forward in transition like they normally do.

Liverpool teammates Steven Gerrard, left, and Raheem Sterling could both be important players for England at the World Cup.
Liverpool teammates Steven Gerrard, left, and Raheem Sterling could both be important players for England at the World Cup.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Italy will expect the normal, pragmatic England team in the opener, and they will be happy to defend and force England to break them down.

So what England need is a player to take responsibility on his shoulders and break through the defense with individual effort. Against a good team like Italy, you can pass all you want. But what you really need is to get through them.

So why not be progressive? Why not turn to players who aren't jaded and aren't weighed down by past experiences?

I think the last thing a team such as Italy would expect is a player like Sterling or Barkley—and an approach that England haven't taken in long time. Doing so would send a message immediately.

Now is not the time for England to be conservative, and for the first time in a long time, they have players who can change the way England play in big matches.

Do I think this will happen? Probably not. But I think that if England take their normal approach, they will get the same result that they always do. Maybe they will come out of the group, but most likely they will be out of tournament in the next round or two.

That certainly won't be seen as a success because England should be going into a World Cup thinking that they can win it.

Granted, if they go into this tournament with the young players and their youthful exuberance, the end product may very well be the same. But I think the approach will be refreshing—and it will certainly be appreciated by supporters and the media back home.

Again, this is a great opportunity to build momentum and confidence for the future. There's absolutely no reason to hold these young players back and then hope that it pays dividends two years from now in Euros or four years from now in the next World Cup.

There's just too much time between now and then to know if these young players will be the same.

So, Mr. Hodgson, I have given you the blueprint, and I hope you will be brave enough to implement it. It's a win-win proposition, in my mind, and if you still have any doubts, Liverpool and Everton—even Southampton, under former manager Mauricio Pochettino—are the best proof that it can work.

Theirs is the sort of football that you have the opportunity to introduce in this World Cup. And if you do, England might just be entertainers this time around. 

I don't remember the last time, heading into a big tournament, that I could say that.


Polish-born Janusz Michallik played 44 times for the United States national team, and in MLS for Columbus Crew and New England Revolution. Now a respected commentator and pundit for ESPN, Fox, SiriusXM FC, OneWorldSports and others, Janusz will be covering matters USMNT for B/R during the World Cup.


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