Very few bemoaned Roy Hodson’s squad selection for this summer, as England fans have seemingly welcomed the unpredictable inexperience of a number of the more attacking players. Despite the ineluctable disappointment of a 2-1 defeat to Italy in the opening group game in a sweltering Manaus, there has been an overriding sense of positivity in the post-match discussion with many highlighting the youthful promise of performances from Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Ross Barkley.
Indeed, there was a refreshing sense of energy and even, I dare say, fearlessness about the first England game at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with those players at the forefront of England’s most attractive play. Sterling was particularly impressive, carrying his form for Liverpool into the Amazonian heat. Not since Michael Owen quite literally burst onto the world stage against Argentina in 1998 have I seen an England player so unperturbed by his first World Cup appearance. The diminutive winger took on all-comers, at times gliding past experienced Italian stars and even providing a wonderful pass to Wayne Rooney who delivered for Sturridge to equalise at the end of the first half.
By the same token, Ross Barkley’s unerring confidence made for encouraging viewing when he came on in the second period to bolster England’s attacking options during their search to draw level for the second time. Another player comfortable running with the ball, direct in his attitude and powerful in his approach, Barkley’s performance gave strength to the idea that there is something in the water on Merseyside. Indeed, Liverpool forward Daniel Sturridge provided an equally accomplished performance, his composure on and off the ball suggesting that he is looking to perpetuate the success of his season at Anfield as well. His finish, albeit from close range, was also very tidy. A striker who scores: you can’t ask for more at a World Cup.
Omitting Ashley Cole from the squad was perhaps the only bone of contention that England fans had with Hodgson heading into the tournament and it would appear that the qualm was justified. In spite of the aforementioned promise of England’s youngest troops, Leighton Baines falls into a rather peculiar category in that he is both highly experienced at club level and entirely lacking on the international stage. At the age of 29, the tie in Manaus was only the 8th competitive cap that Baines has earned and the Ashley-Cole-shaped void he was supposed to fill seemed more considerable than ever. Perhaps putting it down to international inexperience is unfair but Baines appeared lethargic and lacking concentration in the face of Antonio Candreva, who deserves the plaudits he is receiving but in truth, was given the freedom of the right wing; his deep cross leading to Mario Balotelli’s eventual headed winner.
Of course, experience is important but it can belie the capacity to perform when required. Wayne Rooney was frankly and perhaps predictably disappointing, his perfectly weighted assist aside. The United forward, of whom so much is constantly expected, looked out of place on the left wing and indeed the lack of support he showed Baines in defending against Candreva was as notable as his missing of the clear-cut opportunity to pull England level in the second half. Jack Wilshere’s performance left a lot to be desired, his inclusion in the squad seemingly borne out of what he might be able to offer rather than what we really need, which is strength and discipline in central midfield. Question marks remain over the quality of Glen Johnson at right back, his defensive work almost as frail as that of Baines on the other flank. Captain Steven Gerrard was a little quiet given the magnitude of the opposition we faced, his counterpart Andrea Pirlo dictating far more for the Italians than Gerrard was able to for England.
Italy played well and whilst England may have deserved a draw at the very least given some of the sterling (apologies) individual performances, the 2006 world champions showed a certain know-how that England’s youngsters can hardly be expected to have developed at this juncture. Certainly, the excitement of Hodgson’s selection is the reason I am, along with the rest of the nation, looking forward to the clash against Uruguay to see just what this team can do once they find some sort of rhythm at this tournament, not to mention some cooler climes. However, perhaps a bit more of the “old” and the “boring” England might have served us well. In short, this should have been Ashley Cole’s final tournament.