England's Fresh Faces Will See Them Through Group D
For a country so steeped in rich footballing tradition, and one that’s produced some of the finest talent this world has seen, you’d think they would have a better record on the world’s largest stage. But no, with the exception of one lone World Cup title under their belt (1966 vs. West Germany), one semi-final appearance, and a handful of quarterfinal appearances, the proud nation of England has little else to show for it’s World Cup efforts (please note: I’m no snob. As an American, I fully realize that’s probably more success than we’ll ever even sniff in the World Cup).
And with the memories of their poor performance in the 2010 tournament that culminated in a second round exit courtesy of rival Germany still fresh on everyone’s mind, questions about the country’s ability to compete with the best in the world will continue to abound until they make a deep run for the Cup.
Much has been made about their recent struggles, and while opinions vary, most agree that a lack of ability to develop young talent is a chief reason why the team hasn’t made the quarterfinals since 2006. Sure, players like David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and Ashley Cole have all made their marks on the international stage, and certainly Wayne Rooney and Leighton Baines are among the best at their respective positions in the world, but with only a handful of world class players to come through the ranks in recent years, it’s hard to develop the kind of continuity needed to navigate through a World Cup and face the very best that the world has to offer.
However, fortunately for the Three Lions, the 2014 World Cup could show that brighter days are ahead, as the country has seen an influx in young talent emerge since the last tournament. And manager Roy Hodgson is giving the team a much-needed shot in the arm with said talent.
With 12 of the expected final 23 that will head to Brazil in June 26 years old or younger (and four of those being 20 or younger), Hodgson clearly has no reservations in giving some very young and internationally inexperienced players some big responsibilities.
And while something could be said for each one of those youngsters, there are four in particular that could play key roles in determining just how far the team goes this summer.
Adam Lallana, Midfielder - Southampton
At 26, which is when one should just about be entering his prime, it appeared to be now or never for Lallana having not flashed world class ability at 19 or 20 like some of his peers. Well, in the 2013-2014 campaign, Lallana shredded the “show’s promise” label, and not only led Southampton to a very respectable eighth place finish in the Barclay’s Premier League, but made the decision for Hodgson to include him amongst those going to Brazil the ultimate no-brainer.
As a dominating force in central midfield, Lallana notched nine goals and dished out five assists, but it was his overall attacking presence and ability to create that caught the eye of the England manager. He created an astounding 63 chances (assists + key pass - key pass equals a shot on goal that’s not converted), and was an absolute nuisance for opposing defenses as he drew 76 fouls as well.
A role in the first 11 isn’t out of the question for Lallana either. Yes, he’s only seen three senior level cap’s, but he’s probably the best CAM (Central Attacking Midfielder) on the squad, and would certainly lick his chops at playing right behind Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge (who we’ll get to in a moment).
Ross Barkley, Midfielder - Everton
Barkley may not have amassed the counting stats Lallana did this year, but at only 20 years of age, it’s understandable as he’s still quite “green” as a player; thinking he can run by everyone, or score from anywhere - which, of course he can’t...sometimes. But at still a very young age, he’s managed to do something Lallana did not demonstrate when he was the same age, and that’s flash the kind of individual brilliance that has lead to him being compared to another Liverpool-born player turned superstar (cough cough Wayne Rooney). But you know what? Instead of me talking about it, you can see for yourself here and here.
Yes, he’s still raw, but the signs are there that suggest he’s on his way to greatness. At 6’2” and 170 pounds, he already possess ideal size (with room to grow) for handling a large workload and enduring the rigors that accompany being a box to box midfielder. His pace and ability with the ball at his feet appear to be of the utmost quality as well as he completed an impressive 63% (80/128) of his Take On’s (attempted dribble past an opponent), on the way to bagging six goals in all competitions for the Toffee’s this season.
The young Barkley will almost assuredly feature more as a bench player in Brazil, but he could easily provide some muscle in the middle of the pitch as well as some much needed energy as the tropical climate is sure to take it’s toll on some of the England regulars.
Daniel Sturridge, Forward - Liverpool
For this Englishman, it’s all about one thing: the goals. And let’s face it, defending your own net is important and all, but putting the ball in the back of the opponent's net more than they put it in your’s is what wins games. Liverpool proved this true time and time again this year as their back line was consistently beaten, but it proved irrelevant as their attacking style often yielded three or four-plus goals in the process. And spearheading that attack, along with fellow strike partner Luis Suárez, was Daniel Sturridge. In fact, had it not been for the otherworldly season that Suárez had, we'd probably be talking about Sturridge and his 21 goals and 7 assists as the PFA Player of the Year.
Sturridge has what most would call a “nose” for goal. His finishing is clinical, and he’s proved that if given the slightest window of opportunity he can exploit a defense. And if he’s not doing the damage himself, he’s creating it by either setting up a teammate or causing his marker to foul him (which they did 39 times this season). The latter of which can lead to dangerous set pieces or better yet a penalty kick if he’s brought down inside the box.
Alongside Wayne Rooney, Sturridge will likely serve as another striking presence at the top of England’s formation. The team has the midfielders and pressing fullbacks to get the ball into these two, and they should make life interesting for the opposition.
Luke Shaw, Defender - Southampton
At 18, Luke Shaw is the youngest player on the England squad. But his play on the field this year, much similar to his Saints teammate Lallana, essentially forced Hodgson’s hand in selecting him for the World Cup roster. His season was so good in fact, that in just his first full year with the senior level Southampton club he was named to the PFA Team of the Year.
As a fullback in modern football, one must be able to not only hold down your side of the pitch in defense, but also aid in your team’s attack by flying down the wing and crossing the ball into the forwards and attacking midfielders. Shaw did all of that this season, and then some. Not only did he win the majority of his tackle opportunities (61/104), but he also chipped in 37 interceptions and made 150 clearances from his left back position. And when he wasn’t defending, he was fulfilling the other part of positional obligations with 33 created chances that included 1 assist.
He’ll likely be another player to come off the bench for Hodgson as he’s behind Leighton Baines on the depth chart, but he’s proved capable on both sides of the pitch and should no doubt see plenty of the field. His vigor and boundless energy will be an asset, especially later in games when players tire and the team will need a youthful injection.
The Lad’s face a stiff test in Group D of the opening stages of the World Cup. With perennial powerhouse Italy and the always dangerous Uruguay lurking on the schedule, they’ll need to be at their best, and they’ll need to do right out of the gates if they’re to advance. Yes, players like Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney will of course play significant roles in how far the team goes, but it’s on the backs of it’s youth - and particularly these four players - that may determine how the story of England’s 2014 World Cup is written.
On the strength of a nERD ranking of seventh, England rates a 82.48% chance of escaping Group D. It really does come down to their ability to handle Uruguay (12th) and the shockingly low ranked Italy (18th), who has some struggles in recent International play. From there, it's anyone's guess. Fans of the Three Lions will, however, take some solace that nERD gives them a 4.17% of winning it all, bringing some relief to a population so desperately in need of good football form.