Five risks England should take at the World Cup this summer
1) Play with wing-backs in a 3-5-2
Bear with us here. We're not being deliberately odd, or looking to copy those fancy foreign types; 3-5-2 (or 5-3-2 if it makes you feel better) could genuinely work for England.
The current centre-back choices are far from ideal, with inconsistency and vague notions of competence the reality. And if you have a weakness, you shouldn't ignore it and hope for the best: you should plug the gap. Adding Phil Jones to a pairing of Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill would give the defence extra solidity (or at the very least, numbers) and introduce another player to bring the ball out of defence, if you can cope with the idea of Jones being a libero. Most importantly, it would give the wing-backs licence to roam.
The most popular criticism of Leighton Baines is his defending; having a third centre-back would offer protection. Ultimately, though, the Everton man is a born wing-back. And on the other side, he may not know it yet but James Milner is the perfect foil. He's positionally disciplined, strong in the tackle, a mean crosser of the ball and he can get up and down for 90 minutes non-stop. (HD)
2) Leave Lampard and Cole at home
They’re both still fine players on their day, but there are younger players in form who should be ahead in the pecking order. This has the potential to be a brave tournament for Roy Hodgson’s men, and taking two players who can’t get weekly football at Chelsea isn’t the answer.
At 35, Lampard doesn’t have the legs to play so many matches in a short space of time, as his sporadic involvement at Stamford Bridge shows. Cole, meanwhile, hasn’t started for the Blues since mid-January. Taking Southampton’s Luke Shaw instead would prove valuable experience for a youngster who will inevitably make the left-back slot his own one day. The 18-year-old has proved he can cut it in the Premier League. If Hodgson is serious about building a new England, it’s time to get rid of the old and in with the new. The long-term game will benefit for it. (JB)
3) Don’t be afraid to rely on the kids
Brendan Rodgers has done so with Raheem Sterling at Liverpool this season, and been repaid with a string of consistent displays. The young winger is raw, and at just 19 still has much to learn, but he’s stood out in a frontline alongside Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez – and that tells its own story.
“I don’t think there is a better winger in England, at this moment in time. He’s absolutely phenomenal,” declared boss Rodgers recently, without a shred of hyperbole. Presuming Roy doesn’t fancy our wing-back system, though, he’s a viable option on the wing up against Andros Townsend and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but… (JB)
4) Try Oxlade-Chamberlain through the middle
Arsene Wenger has forever declared that the 20-year-old will end up in central midfield permanently one day, and hasn’t been afraid to utilise him there this season.
The former Southampton youngster was sensational against Liverpool on the right, scoring twice, but has also held his own inside on a number of occasions. When he was thrown in at the deep end against AC Milan in the 2011/12 Champions League, Arsenal were 4-0 down after the first leg and all but out. But Oxlade-Chamberlain was integral in helping the Gunners snatch three first-half goals in the second leg, terrorising the Italians’ backline with a supremely confident display.
The youngster started in the middle against Crystal Palace earlier this month and netted twice, prompting Wenger to gush: “He has that surge of power which is so vital in the game today. He is also a good finisher, and hopefully these two goals will give him some confidence as he is not always sure he is a good goalscorer.”
With Michael Carrick and Steven Gerrard just behind in our ideal line-up (at the bottom of this page, you'll be delighted to hear), the youngster would have the freedom to take a positive game to England’s opposition. That’s not to say his defensive work is lacking, though – and recent first-team inclusions at Arsenal have suggested quite the opposite. Jack Wilshere is the obvious alternative, or Everton’s Ross Barkley should Roy fancy the risk, but the latter's form since returning from injury has been patchy. A place on the bench should be his, though. (JB)
5) Leave the fear factor at home
This is England’s chance to prove that there’s more to major tournaments than a failed Golden Generation of stars who were, and never will be, world champions. Nobody is expecting Roy’s boys to come home with the trophy, but the disappointment will be palpable if there are no signs of promise at least.
A glance at Germany’s squad is testament to what can happen with the right approach – but it wasn’t always like this. The moment a 22-year-old Philipp Lahm opened the scoring against Costa Rica in 2006 is widely regarded as the turning point in German international football. Jürgen Klinsmann wasn’t afraid to pick Lahm, or 21-year-old trio Per Mertesacker, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski; by that point they already averaged 23 caps.
Germany's breakout stars of the 2010 tournament arrived in South Africa with only a handful of caps each - Mesut Özil (10), Sami Khedira (5) and Thomas Müller (2). Müller's five goals and three assists saw him land the Golden Boot, as Germany reached the semi-finals and lost to eventual winners Spain.
It wouldn’t be fair to compare either talented collection of youngsters with England’s largely inexperienced current crop, but you get the picture. Group D opponents Italy endured a miserable 2010 World Cup after past glories had left the next generation in the cold, but four years on they're dark horses to steal back their crown thanks to the exciting array of young talent at Cesare Prandelli's disposal.
It takes time, but most definitely requires some early moves. The worst thing for England this summer wouldn’t be failure, but failing to have a proper go. (JB)