After years of blinded eternal optimism, the England football team enter this week’s World Cup under a cloud of supressed expectation. Most people believe the team will be on a flight home after 3 games rather than battling through the knockout stages with the titans of world football.
England’s struggles over the last decade have been mainly down to a lack of creativity and flair to open up opposing defences. Ironically, now, at the time when most people toned down their exceptionally high hopes, the England national team has possibly its best chance at a decent run in the tournament than it has had for years.
The closest England has come to producing a classic number 10 in 50 years was an individual by the name of Paul Gascoigne. In arguably the greatest World Cup of modern times, Italia’90, Gazza was one of a few players who lit up the tournament with his dazzling skills, mind-boggling dribbling and his passionate semi-final tears; all of which make him fondly remembered by football fans around the world – not just English ones.
Such a performance earned him a big money move to Italian giants, Lazio. Despite his extraordinary skills, Gazza ended up as a more conventional midfielder in a 4-4-2 formation that was so popular in the 1990s. While other countries can boast an excess of talent for the man ‘in the hole’ (Germany with Ozil, Gotze and Draxler, and Spain with Mata, Silva and Cazorla) England have consistently struggled to produce any creative force since Paul Gascoigne. That might be about to change.
The emergence of Merseyside duo Ross Barkley (Everton) and Raheem Sterling (Liverpool) offers the England team a dimension they have been lacking for a very long time. Neither player is likely to start the tournament against four-time World Cup winners, Italy, but watch for both youngsters to make an impression coming on as super-subs, and possibly creeping into the starting line-ups as the tournament progresses and England’s regular starters predictably struggle. And although neither would be deemed a typical number 10, they can both offer something different, which England have lacked, when playing the role, invariable (and somewhat surprisingly) shining at club level.
Barkley enjoyed a breakout year this season. Under the tutelage of new Everton boss, Roberto Martinez, and his preference for passing, possession football, the young midfielder was thrust into the starting line-up. Martinez’s faith was instantly rewarded as Barkley produced a number of eye catching performances which helped push Everton into contention for UEFA Champions League qualification for the majority of the season.
Despite his fine start to the 2013/14 Premier League season, everything did not always go exactly to plan for Barkley. A mid-season slump in form, followed by a month long injury lay-off hampered the 20 year old’s development led to him rotating in and out of the Everton team in the latter half of the season.
He regained his form in the last month of the season which culminated in a sensational performance and exquisite goal against eventual champions Manchester City.
Barkley offers an interesting threat when on the field. His direct style of powerful, pacey running combined with his ability to conjure a goal from nothing could prove to be priceless to England’s chances of escaping a difficult World Cup group (which contains Italy and the much fancied Uruguay).
Despite all the positives he is still an unfinished product. His form varies wildly from game to game – one game he can be brilliant and in the next anonymous – and his lack of awareness and tactical discipline will no doubt have a bearing on how much he features in the competition. Providing Barkley can play at a consistently high performance level, he could emerge from the tournament as an unexpected star.
While there is no doubt that Ross Barkley will be a central midfielder of some description in the future, Raheem Sterling has the unique ability of being able to excel in several different positions. The consensus is that with his speed and ability to beat a man he will end up settling as a winger, but the 19 year old attacking midfielder has been deployed behind the main striker several times during last season by Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers.
As part of a remarkably successful three-pronged Liverpool attack that led the Premier League for long parts of the season – narrowly missing out on their first championship for 24 years – Sterling offers several options to Roy Hodgson as he attempts to exceed all expectations and escape from Group D.
He is a fearless young player with the ability to beat a man with ease through his exceptional pace and tricky feet. That being said, like Barkley he is still needs to work on his game. He needs to work on his ability to pick a pass rather than running down a cul-de-sac towards the by-line and keeping hold of the ball needlessly. A lot of improvements will come naturally as he gains more experience, and a season in next year’s Champions League will prove priceless.
The majority of football fans are eager to see these young players make a contribution to England’s World Cup cause, but don’t be surprised if both players feature on a very limited basis. England managers of recent years seem very reluctant to change the team much, preferring to rely on the current crop of players – which is strange as they always seem to disappoint.
The truth of the matter is that this might be a tournament too early for both young playmakers, who may be there simply to gain some experience as England look to build for the future – a future where both will be key to any success.