Raheem Sterling and England's Focus on Youth Will Breed Confidence vs. Italy

Garry HayesFeatured ColumnistJune 13, 2014

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - JUNE 04:  Steven Gerrard of England speaks with Raheem Sterling of England after he was shown a red card  during the International friendly match between England and Ecuador at Sun Life Stadium on June 4, 2014 in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Wayne Rooney has been beating the drum for England this week ahead of their World Cup opener with Italy.

"Italy should be thinking about how to control our team," he said in a press conference shortly after England landed in Brazil ahead of the World Cup, per TheFA.com's Jamie Bradbury. "They have good players but so do we. They should worry about us."

It's a refreshing sound bite coming from the Three Lions camp—one far removed from the cloud many were putting Roy Hodgson's team under before they had even departed London for South America.

It's bolshie, confident and exactly what England fans will want to hear. More importantly, it's what Rooney's teammates would have wanted their talisman to say.

After all the doom and gloom leading up to Brazil 2014, the reports that England are a spent force, that the country no longer produces talented players, England have the look of a team that means business at this World Cup.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - JUNE 09:  Roy Hodgson, manager of England (R) talks with Raheem Sterling of England during a training session at the Urca military base (Forte de Urca) training ground on June 9, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Richard
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

While the chances of them actually doing the unthinkable—going all the way to be crowned as champions—remains an outside hope more than anything, there's renewed anticipation surrounding English football on the international stage.

The reason? The youngsters Hodgson has taken with him to Brazil.

Of England's 23-man squad, 10 players are aged 24 or under, with an average age of 26 throughout. Compare that to the team he took to the European Championships just two years ago and the progress is clear.

England's squad in Ukraine and Poland had that dreaded has-been feel to it. It was flat, lacking inspiration with the team all but picking itself.

There were just five players under 24.

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - JUNE 07:  Jordan Henderson of England (C) speaks to Emilio Izaguirre of Honduras as Daniel Sturridge (L) looks on during the International Friendly match between England and Honduras at the Sun Life Stadium on June 7, 2014 in Miami Gar
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Times are changing for England, though. Whereas their hopes have long been put on the so-called Golden Generation of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, et al, there is a new breed emerging.

Raheem Sterling, Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Daniel Sturridge and Luke Shaw are all competing at their first major international tournament, while the likes of Jordan Henderson, Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain can boast previous experience.

And as Hodgson's new-look England takes shape, it's those players who are taking over the mantle to form the nucleus.

Against Italy in Manaus on Saturday, we could well see Sterling and Sturridge line up as part of an attacking three alongside Rooney, with Henderson playing further back.

KIEV, UKRAINE - JUNE 24: Andrea Pirlo of Italy and Wayne Rooney of England challenge for the ball during the UEFA EURO 2012 quarter final match between England and Italy at The Olympic Stadium on June 24, 2012 in Kiev, Ukraine.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Ge
Claudio Villa/Getty Images

With their pace and guile, it will be a stark contrast to the England team Italy faced at Euro 2012.

Back then, England were labored, chasing shadows as Andrea Pirlo dictated proceedings. With youth and energy on their side, an aging Italian line-up will not have the same luxuries.

This time they are facing a team who will look to play on the front foot, being more proactive than the side that was content to sit deep and invite the Azzurri onto them.

It will be considered more than gung-ho from England in Manaus, yet Italy will have a lot more to consider when the Three Lions are in possession.

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - JUNE 04:  Jack Wilshere of England breaks with the ball during the International friendly match between England and Ecuador at Sun Life Stadium on June 4, 2014 in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

What England's youngsters give them is options—options they didn't have two years ago in Ukraine when they crashed out on penalties against the Italians, options that have long eluded Hodgson's predecessors.

In adding plenty of young talent, Hodgson has brought with it that youthful sense of adventure. Suddenly England have players who not only want to express themselves, but are fully capable of it.

When they face Italy, any nightmares from Euro 2012 will be irrelevant.

It's a different tournament, a different continent, a different England.