With the announcement of every England squad, the nation observes multitudes of previously indifferent football fans awakening as patriotic experts. For a population that groans their way through most international breaks, it is bizarre that suddenly there is a plague of opinions about just what Andros Townsend offers to the England squad. Maybe it is our coping mechanism for losing Jeff Stelling for a week, or maybe we suddenly realise that we are in fact excited by the prospect of England taking on the glamorous Slovenia. Rarely does one overhear somebody shouting about Roy Hodgson’s selection in a glowingly positive critique, but just how fair is that?
There are three players in particular who characterise the complications that an international manager faces on the advent of the selection of a squad. Chris Smalling is a monument to unfulfilled potential, and as a regular for Manchester United he is regularly struggling. Rickie Lambert has fallen from an unquestioned pick on the back of strong form last season to a disputed one on the back of no form this season. Theo Walcott can be an important player for England, but is he important enough to warrant instant inclusion upon return from an extended stay at His Physio’s Pleasure?
Smalling is perhaps the easiest target, having redefined rashness so recently in the Manchester derby. It was a display of naïve impetuousness that is not becoming of someone turning twenty-five this month (happy birthday Chris, from everyone here at The Yorker!). Maybe his international case is furthered by his consistent donning of a Manchester United shirt, or maybe Hodgson still sees reminders of a fresh-faced Smalling who burst onto the scene and immediately found the world at his feet. Unfortunately, he has turned out to be as proficient with the ball at his feet as he was with the world. Far from being a terrible centre-back, Smalling is like a piece of IKEA furniture; he has all the components, and he is just waiting to be fully assembled. At the moment he is a chair with only three legs. You wouldn’t trust him in important situations, unreliable and ungainly. But at the same time, you could probably sit on him if you really had to. Uncomfortable analogy aside, there is a player there to be constructed into something serviceable at the absolute least. But that should be the role of Manchester United, not of England.
Therefore Hodgson should be considering fully-formed individuals who are performing consistently today. Curtis Davies, Hull City’s Player of the Season last year, has been partnered by Michael Dawson, and successfully so. The agricultural Ryan Shawcross also merits a chance to exorcise the demons that Zlatan Ibrahimovic conjured in the Stoke defender’s sole cap. There are no delusions that these players are a Vincent Kompany or a Sergio Ramos. But they are no Chris Smalling either.
Let us move on to the case of Rickie Lambert by first talking about Mario Balotelli. Even when you do not anticipate Balotelli to get a mention, he invariably does. In fact, Balotelli’s current ineptitude has been extremely well-documented. If Lambert cannot get into the team ahead of a struggling Mario who has forgotten how to run, then one has to question both his short-term and long-term role for club and country. Hodgson is faced with an imposing quandary of whether or not to banish Lambert into a perennial international wilderness, where he would get to spend lots of quality time with Gareth Barry and Jermain Defoe.
With that said, there is hardly a myriad of burgeoning attacking talent to choose from. Harry Kane’s Europa League escapades are insufficient to merit inclusion just yet, whilst the most promising striker has already found himself in the squad for the first time. Lambert will be able to physically see Saido Berahino standing ahead of him in the pecking order. When Daniel Sturridge returns from his injury setback, Lambert will either squeeze up on the bench to accommodate Danny Welbeck or vacate his spot entirely. Trying to attain an element of consistency and coherency in the squad is a difficult issue for an international manager. Contact hours with his pool of players are at a premium, so by relying on the tried and tested Hodgson can forge team chemistry on the back of continuity in his squad selection. For now, Rickie Lambert is an acceptable solution, if only to keep the bench warm.
Along similar lines, it is not hard to see why Theo Walcott has waltzed immediately into the squad. With his pace and his maturing finishing, Walcott will be a mainstay of future England squads assuming he has not totally forgotten how to play football whilst injured. Again, this correlates with the sentiment that an international manager needs to foment team spirit. If Walcott is going to be an important England player for the foreseeable future and he is healthy, then he should be called up. Whilst this approach is arguably advocating a supplicant position towards England’s “star” players, the construction of a tightly-knit group for a tournament cycle cannot be overlooked. If Walcott plays abysmally in his next few Arsenal games, then throw him out with the trash and the Tom Cleverleys. But for now, get him in.
Certainly one can sympathise with Roy Hodgson on any criticism he has received over these three contentious selections. Three lions? Well, a fit-again lion, a fading lion and a pussycat. The most salient conclusions I can make from all of this is that it must be bloody hard being an international manager, and that I need a drink..