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England: Looking ahead to Brazil 2014

Another European Championship passes with another quarter-final defeat for England. Again, it’s the old foe, penalties.

Some will have been depressed and concerned by England’s displays at Euro 2012. Others will rue the lack of luck and view winning Group D as an achievement. Opinions cast aside, the real work begins now for Roy Hodgson (pictured).

He is tasked with leading England to the World Cup, and guiding them to glory in Brazil in two years’ time. So this leaves the small matter of assembling a fit and competent squad in the meantime.

From England’s performances in Poland and the Ukraine it is clear to see where the problem lies. England were outclassed by France, outpassed by the Ukraine and, almost, outmuscled by Sweden.

Ball retention

They did achieve the necessary results but ball retention poses the biggest problem. This is highlighted by statistics showing that England averaged around 40% ball possession at Euro 2012, better only than Ireland and Greece, and England’s worst at a tournament in nearly three decades.

England’s inability to retain the ball led to Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker having to repeatedly chase the ball and it showed, as the pair looked worn out following each game. This is a major flaw and one that was painfully exposed by the Italians, and in particular, Andrea Pirlo.

The veteran playmaker rolled back the years to inspire his side and was the single most influential player in the game with his sublime range of passing. It does not help that the cornerstones of England’s moderate success, Gerrard and Parker, will be 34 and 33 respectively come Brazil 2014.

Room for optimism

Looking down the remaining spine of the team, there is room for optimism. Joe Hart was an outstanding presence in goal and is destined to wear the number one for at least the next 10 years.

At the heart of the defence John Terry and Joleon Lescott preformed admirably whilst lacking pace. Terry justified his selection for what was, almost certainly, his last international tournament and Lescott should expect to be an inclusion for the foreseeable future.

Ahead of the midfield are Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and Andy Carroll. Welbeck showed promise and technique, even though he was often isolated and should be a shoo-in for Brazil given he continues to develop at his current rate.

Carroll also enjoyed potentially his finest hour in the last year against Sweden, where he was a commanding presence leading the line. That leaves Rooney, who again failed to deliver the early promise shown at Euro 2004 and was criticised for failing to replicate his Manchester United form.

It did not help that he had to sit out the first two games, but he never looked sharp after the absence and faced a barrage of criticism, ironically led by Fabio Capello.

Replacing the 'golden generation'

A replacement must also be found for Ashley Cole who will be 33 by then, and while he may be able to squeeze one more tournament out of his body, a successor to him must be found.

Leighton Baines continues to wait his turn and seems a logical option but the debate continues as to whether a good reputation from set pieces is enough to perform at left back for England.

The only player guaranteed a spot on the plane to Brazil based on their showing at Euro 2012 is Hart.

Jack Butland will still be only 21 by then but showed such promise in a loan spell at Cheltenham Town last season that he was taken as part of the squad and is rumoured to be the Great Britain goalkeeper at the upcoming Olympics.

The third goalkeeper will surely be John Ruddy if he continues to perform as impressively as he has done in the past few years at Norwich.

At the heart of the defence, the remainder of the ‘golden generation’ will have been cleared out, albeit the potential inclusion of Cole.

Terry no longer has the pace or ability to put in a number of good performances over a short space of time. This was evident even in 2010 as he was exposed by the German front line and it showed again versus Italy.

Rio Ferdinand’s international career also appears to be over following his omission from the recent squad.

Lescott can expect to be the oldest centre back in 2014 at 31, and should play alongside the talented trio of Gary Cahill, Chris Smalling or Phil Jones.

The future

Jones, particularly, is a wonderful talent, able to play at centre back, right back or as an anchorman. This versatility makes him invaluable and some will wonder why he wasn’t employed to shackle Pirlo against Italy.

Nevertheless, his time will surely come and he has a few tournaments still where he should emerge as a key player.

Chris Smalling has also had a successful season with Manchester United where he enjoyed being a regular due to Nemanja Vidic’s injury. Considering Ferdinand and Vidic are in the latter stages of their careers, Jones and Smalling could well become a centre back partnership at United, which will also bode well for the national team.

Other defensive options include Martin Kelly, Ryan Shawcross and Micah Richards. The latter will wonder as to what more he has to do to merit an England cap following a magnificent few seasons at Manchester City.

At full back the options are more straightforward. On the left Leighton Baines is ready to replace the ever-dependable Cole, with Kieran Gibbs of Arsenal also an option.

Gibbs has stagnated since his meteoric rise and it would be a shame if he didn’t realise his potential. These three can be expected to fight over two selection spots, while the right back decision is simple. Kyle Walker was immense for Spurs and should be an automatic pick with Glen Johnson as his understudy.

Room for improvement

In central midfield there is a large amount of room for improvement. Parker’s fitness is already questionable and he cannot be expected to perform the role he had at Euro 2012.

Gerrard is also unlikely to feature but could be reformed in a deeper role, a la Pirlo. The international careers of Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick and Gareth Barry are all but over.

In midfield, much depends on the return from injury of Jack Wilshere. He was emerging as a potential world class player prior to his injury and was England’s answer to Iniesta or Kaka, but he has been out for almost two years and fans hope the scenario is not a repeat of what happened with team mate Aaron Ramsey.

His rehabilitation has, however, been closely monitored and he should regain his form by 2014. Everton’s Jack Rodwell is also a possibility and has the tackling attributes of Parker coupled with passing of Gerrard making it the ideal partnership with Wilshere.

Alternative inclusions

Other inclusions should be the promising Tom Cleverley, who started so brightly at United until his season was also curtailed by injury. Josh McEachran may be considered but much will depend on his playing time for the Blues whilst there is also Jordan Henderson who had a poor season at Liverpool but showed potential whilst at Sunderland.

Moreover there is Ross Barkley, although he is more likely to be one for 2016 given his age. The midfield is in need of drastic reform but options are open, especially given the uncertainty over Wilshere.

On the flanks England are blessed with high calibre players, able and available to play in the right and left sided positions. At present, Ashley Young was disappointing and James Milner a defensive option.

For 2014 the hopefuls are Aaron Lennon, Adam Johnson, Alex Chamberlain and Theo Walcott along with Young and Milner.

Lennon was impressive for Tottenham but is still labeled as lightweight and inconsistent but has improved and is always a threat.

Johnson is, when on form, just as impressive but is currently not good enough to be a regular at his club and this will hinder his international career.

Chamberlain showed his promise and could be world class whereas Walcott proved against Sweden that he is a superb impact player but not one to be starting. There is also Wilfried Zaha of Crystal Palace who showed glimpses of brilliance last season but much depends on his future destination and performances.

Striking options

Lastly, the strikers. Danny Welbeck excelled as a lone front man despite being isolated and having to feed off scraps most of the time. He has the pace, touch and finishing ability to be an international striker and will surely be first choice if he continues to blossom at United.

Andy Carroll was also a pleasant surprise to those bemoaning his inclusion and offers the ability for the side to play a more direct style. His aerial prowess is unquestionable and is an old-fashioned centre forward but it is unknown where his club career will go next, particularly following Brendan Rodgers appointment at Liverpool.

Rooney, for all his criticisms, will be in his prime at 28 and will be undroppable should he continue to play as he has for his club. Daniel Sturridge can also expect to play should he continue to improve at Chelsea.

Other options include Darren Bent, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Jermain Defoe but they will have a lot of work to do.

The future seems bright for England but how many times have those words been uttered by an expectant nation? However, youthful exuberance with a sprinkling of experienced campaigners points to a better performance than at Euro 2012.

My 23-man squad for Brazil 2014: Goalkeepers: Hart, Ruddy, Butland; Defenders: Cahill, Lescott, Jones, Smalling, Gibbs, Baines, Walker, G. Johnson; Midfielders: Wilshere, Rodwell, Gerrard, Cleverley, Walcott, Chamberlain, A. Johnson, Lennon; Forwards: Rooney, Welbeck, Carroll, Sturridge.

By Djordje Jajcanin

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