By Ewan Roberts
With the hard graft over and World Cup qualification secured, Roy Hodgson's attentions now turn towards his 23-man squad for Brazil next summer. Friendlies against Chile and Germany would appear to provide the England boss with a pressure-free opportunity to trial new faces and different tactics, but too much change and experimentation risks turning the Three Lions into Frankenstein's monster.
Given the limited time Hodgson is afforded to spend with his charges, every minute on the training pitch and every second of match time is invaluable, yet the 66-year-old has taken a rather laissez-faire approach to squad selection. Withdrawals, injuries and the question mark hanging over Joe Hart means, at most, just five players who started the 2-0 win over Poland are likely to retain their place against Chile on Friday.
Just when England had stumbled upon something that worked - a system and collaboration of personnel that, for the first time in a long time, produced rousing, entertaining and domineering football - Hodgson appears set to dump that particular set-up. Rather than honing and developing the partnerships that were beginning to fizzle and spark, Hodgson will instead give fringe players a chance to impress in a fragmented and largely alien line-up.
|ENGLAND'S UPCOMING FIXTURES
Of course, they would be only little tweaks to an already solid base, attempts at enhancing a successful blueprint, whereas Hodgson is likely to ring the changes; Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana are all expected to start against la Roja. But with so few of those young, promising players (though Lallana is already 25 years old) likely to be used in Brazil, this feels like a missed opportunity.
Friday night's fixture against Chile - a side who, under Jorge Sampaoli, play aggressive, attacking, 100kph football - should be an excellent platform for England's first team to get a taste of uniquely South American opposition. In fact, it's the first time the Three Lions will take on a South American side that isn't Brazil since June 2006, when they beat Ecuador.
Brazil aren't a typically South American side either. Four of the starting XI that beat Spain in the Confederations Cup final ply their trade in England, while only striker Fred does not currently play in Europe - though spent four years in France with Lyon. There is a decidedly continental and familiar edge to this Brazil side, something that cannot be levied at the relentlessly attacking Chile team.
|HODGSON'S INEXPERIENCED CALL-UPS|
|FRASER FORSTER||0 CAPS|
|KIERAN GIBBS||2 CAPS|
|ROSS BARKLEY||1 CAP|
|ADAM LALLANA||0 CAPS|
However, such a test is worthless for Hodgson's Lions if he selects a side to face Chile that is packed with players who will play little or no part in next summer's tournament. Players cannot draw on experiences they never had.
Meanwhile, the second friendly against Germany, currently only behind Spain in Fifa's world rankings, gives England the chance to lay down a marker and claim a morale-boosting, momentum-sustaining win. Too much experimentation, though, risks leaving the England squad unbalanced and open to embarrassment, and heavy defeat would land a psychological blow that the side would carry to Brazil, an inferiority complex they may struggle to overcome should they face Die Mannschaft again next summer.
Joachim Low's side also offers an example of the importance of picking a settled team even in friendlies, and is especially pertinent given the debate surrounding goalkeeper Hart. In the season prior to Euro 2008, Jens Lehmann made just six league starts for Arsenal, forced to play back-up to Manuel Almunia. Low, though, cemented the German as his No.1 and stuck by him. Starved of game time for the Gunners, he played virtually every friendly and competitive game for Germany in the build-up to the summer tournament.
Lehmann kept 11 clean sheets in the 21 matches he played for Germany in the two years prior to the European Championship, with the side drawing against Cyprus and losing 3-0 against the Czech Republic in the rare games he missed, and he was ever-present in Austria and Switzerland as Germany reached the final. Hodgson should show similar faith in Hart, who cannot afford to be left out given his precarious situation at Manchester City, while Fraser Forster and John Ruddy (as well as the defence ahead of them) will gain little from 45 minutes apiece on Friday night.
Fortunately, or at least for now, Hodgson's dabbling has yet to descend into the confused, scattergun approach taken by Fabio Capello ahead of the last World Cup in South Africa, where the Italian's experiments and straw-clutching squad selections (which included a call-up for Carlton Cole) created only more problems rather than the solutions he craved.
Despite having overseen a near-perfect qualification campaign, Capello called up 41 different players for four friendlies against Brazil, Egypt, Mexico and Japan in the six months prior to the 2010 World Cup. Over those games, 34 players featured - 13 of whom would not make the final cut. Suddenly, players who had barely featured under Capello previously, like Emile Heskey, were part of the side while Michael Dawson and Stephen Warnock, who had never played under the Italian, made his final 23-man squad.
Capello's England lost their cohesion through over experimentation, and by the time the World Cup arrived the Italian seemed at his most perplexed as to what his best XI actually was. Hodgson must heed that warning and ensure the upcoming friendlies help him mould his first team, rather than blur his thinking, otherwise England risk losing their identity just as they are beginning to find it.
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