No half measures: England must go with youth in Brazil

After selecting the likes of Luke Shaw, Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling in his 23-man squad, Roy Hodgson must commit to unleashing his young stars at the World Cup.
If England is to bow out prematurely at this summer’s World Cup, it will do so having attempted to do things differently — at least that's how it appears after Roy Hodgson named a youthful 23-man squad ahead of this summer’s tournament in Brazil.

The selections of Luke Shaw, Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling in particular hint at Hodgson’s willingness to accept the heat and humidity of Manaus, the venue for England’s first game of the tournament against Italy, is not the sort of environment to place faith in the remnants of England’s Golden Generation.

England stars under 23 years of age
Luke Shaw (18)
Raheem Sterling (19)
Ross Barkley (20)
Phil Jones (22)
Manchester United
Jack Wilshere (22)
Oxlade-Chamberlain (20)
The decision to leave out Ashley Cole, a tournament veteran, an unflinchingly dedicated professional and still, even at 33, a high-quality performer, represents Hodgson’s most controversial selection.

But if the upside of Cole’s omission is to be the promotion of the rampaging Shaw, the teenage tyro Manchester United is prepared to make the highest paid teenager in world soccer, ahead of schedule, then so be it.

In any case, England’s campaign is unlikely to hinge on who fills the left back berth and the identity of his deputy, and more on whether Hodgson’s commitment to youth is as concrete as the squad list suggests.

The team in its current guise, before the inevitable fitness-related dropouts, represents something of a PR win for Hodgson, who has had to guard against accusations of being too old and too stuck in his ways almost from the moment he was installed in the job.

There has been little in his tenure so far to suggest Hodgson is capable of being anything other than the conservative, pragmatic and quintessentially English manager the Football Association craved once it had decided to terminate Fabio Capello’s employment.

England huffed and puffed its way to the quarterfinals of Euro 2012 before an ugly defensive display against Italy was rewarded only with a customary penalty shootout defeat, while qualification for Brazil, punctuated by friendly defeats against high-caliber opposition, was rather more complicated than it should have been.

Although this squad hints at a radical change in Hodgson’s thinking and focus, the acid test of his commitment and faith in the youngsters lacking in big tournament experience will come when he names his starting XI for the crucial opener against the Azzurri.

Should that team sheet be populated with the names of those players scarred by previous failures, we will know to expect little more than an ignominious group stage exit, with the opportunity to blood an exciting crop of emerging talents wasted.

Aside from the prerequisites for success, technical ability and tactical discipline, success at this World Cup is likely to rely upon fitness, stamina, pace and versatility.

The likes of Barkley, Shaw, Lallana and Sterling have displayed those qualities in abundance over the course of a grueling Premier League season and should be trusted to exhibit them in Brazil, rather than simply be dragged along for a glorified work experience jamboree.

That is not to say there is not a place for the experience of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and James Milner, but the scoring threat of the Liverpool and Chelsea stalwarts has been greatly reduced this season, barring the admittedly impressive output from set pieces and penalties, while the Manchester City winger’s standout quality remains his work ethic. This trio will be required to manage games and protect leads, not establish them.

However misguided the findings and suggestions of FA Commission, the chairman, Greg Dyke, is right to seek change and a fresh approach. But what is the point in radical overhaul and investment in grassroots when the man at the top of the ladder remains wedded to the past?

Brazil 2014 provides the perfect opportunity, particularly with the squad he has chosen, for Hodgson to prove he can be more than yesterday’s man. We will know June 14 whether or not he is brave enough to take that opportunity.