Thursday, August 30, 2012
England stars being marginalised
Just as England are going up in the rankings, many of their players are being downgraded. It caused a mixture of amusement and bemusement when FIFA deemed Roy Hodgson's side officially the third best in the world. Nevertheless, having ascended to a podium position, they provided a form of vindication by beating Euro 2012 finalists Italy, albeit in a friendly.
Yet no sooner had they done so than Hodgson was warning that his job was about to get harder. His natural inclination is to dampen expectations but there was a downbeat realism to his analysis. England, he warned, may be calling up increasing numbers of players who cannot get in their club side. Since then circumstances have changed, and not for the better as far as Hodgson is concerned.
Some of his charges may be on the bench for the eventual champions, but others won't get in teams who may be fifth and sixth, and potentially even lower, in the Premier League. The combination of summer signings, managerial changes and switches in shape means that, far from crying off internationals, some Englishmen could need them for a rare taste of first-team football.
Take Manchester United. The bonus of Tom Cleverley getting a regular slot is being outweighed by potential problems: The worst-case scenario for Hodgson is that, when fit again, Wayne Rooney is sidelined by the arrivals of Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa. While the Liverpudlian is injured, Danny Welbeck may lead the line for his country but his sole start for his club so far has come on the left wing. And if Welbeck is to cement a place there, it will be at the expense of another Englishman, Ashley Young. Either way, Hodgson loses.
Indeed, while it seems unlikely Rooney will spend much of the season on the bench, Hodgson could find himself in what may be an unprecedented situation for an England manager where none of his strikers are first-choice at club level. The other two taken to Euro 2012 were Jermain Defoe, who will surely be displaced by Emmanuel Adebayor at Tottenham, and Andy Carroll, already seemingly demoted below 17-year-old Raheem Sterling at Anfield.
Indeed, Liverpool provided the largest contingent in Hodgson's summer squad but three of them - Carroll, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing - no longer benefit from the favouritism Kenny Dalglish showed towards his own signings. Each appears to be a replacement for Rodgers, with the sole source of encouragement for one of his predecessors coming from Martin Kelly, who has begun both league games.
Then there is the Andre Villas-Boas effect, which relates to two clubs. When the Portuguese was at Stamford Bridge, Daniel Sturridge figured frequently. Since his sacking, the Englishman has been more of a bit-part player. At White Hart Lane, Villas-Boas has a sizeable English contingent on the fringes of his Tottenham team. Steven Caulker was in Hodgson's squad to face Italy, but looks Spurs' fourth-choice centre-back, just ahead of Michael Dawson; Tom Huddlestone and Jermaine Jenas are surplus to requirements in midfield; and while Jake Livermore, capped by Hodgson earlier this month, is starting now, that may change when Moussa Dembele swaps Craven Cottage for White Hart Lane.
Meanwhile, Manchester City are alone among the elite clubs in signing an England international this summer. Whether Jack Rodwell can add to his two caps may depend on how often Roberto Mancini uses him (even if, after only 11 league starts last season, the midfielder missed much of Everton's campaign) but, more surprisingly, Joleon Lescott has been omitted in both games where City have started with a back three. If the formation stays, it may be to the detriment of England's premier centre-back in the summer. If it goes, James Milner, a Hodgson favourite who has been reinvented as a wing-back by Mancini, will probably struggle to start in midfield.
The best news from the Etihad Stadium came with Adam Johnson's eventual sale to Sunderland, where a fringe player should become an automatic choice. Yet even among the mid-ranking teams in the division, there is cause for concern. Robert Green had only played two games for Queens Park Rangers before they signed a new goalkeeper, Julio Cesar. Second choice for his country, Green could fill the same role for his club. Among the few alternatives, Hodgson has given a debut to Jack Butland but he and Birmingham City are currently sitting in the Championship relegation zone.
At this embryonic stage of the season, the status of others remains to be resolved. Gary Cahill may rank below David Luiz at Chelsea; Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, when fit again, could see their opportunities limited now Nemanja Vidic is available again to be a cornerstone of Sir Alex Ferguson's defence; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain might suffer if Arsene Wenger signs a successor to the sold Alex Song. But the guarantee is that some will be sitting out too many matches.
Apart from presumably making players keener to represent their country, there is one other possible advantage. For years, an excuse offered for England's underachievement has been the heavy workload of their players. No longer.