England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight
Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
From the moment Costa Rica defeated Italy 71 days ago to send England out of the World Cup finals, the visit of Norway loomed large in the minds of the Football Association as one of those friendly internationals that could turn into anything but a friendly occasion.
The pitfalls were obvious at the time: a nondescript opponent, swathes of empty red seats, a disgruntled mood among those who had come and an England team lacking the dynamism to restore even a little faith. If that World Cup qualifying defeat in Oslo in 1981 was, to quote the late great Norwegian commentator Bjorge Lillelien, one hell of a beating, then imagine what a flat performance this time around will do for Hodgson.
And so it came to pass that Hodgson was forced to select a 22-man squad today that will have done little to enthuse a dubious home audience that the future for England post-golden generation is one that promises to glow brightly.
Hodgson knew that this initial post-Brazil examination, before the more serious test against Switzerland in Basel a week on Monday, the first Euro 2016 qualifier, would be a slog. He accepted with the usual good grace that he would be on the back foot again following the World Cup group-stage exit, but he probably did not think that he would have to contend with injuries to 12 players under his consideration.
Some of the injured, like Michael Carrick and Andy Carroll, were not in his World Cup squad despite being available then; while others, such as Ross Barkley, Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw and Theo Walcott, are much more fundamental to Hodgson’s plans. Either way, it feels that there are squads that come around every couple of years when an England manager is forced to eke out his resources that little bit more – and this was one of them.
That is not simply reflected in the new names in the squad – Jack Colback, Danny Rose, Calum Chambers and Fabian Delph – but more in the lack of experience beyond Wayne Rooney, the new captain with 95 caps and way out on his own in terms of an international career. Rooney has scored 40 goals for England while the rest of the 21 men in the squad have 27 between them.
Chambers, an impressive performer for Arsenal this season, as he was at Southampton, always looked likely to be an England footballer one day, just not so soon. He has, in Hodgson’s words, “bypassed” the Under-21s, which shows what three consecutive starts in the first team of a top four Premier League club can do for your career. Colback, Rose and Delph have all enjoyed solid starts to the season but the unavoidable feeling is that they have earned their call-ups by default.
At this time of year, the FA’s player resources are stretched to their very limits with two Under-21s European Championship qualifiers and an Under-20s game at Telford in international week – as well as the seniors. The respective squads of Gareth Southgate and Aidy Boothroyd feature some interesting names but those among them who are playing first-team football, with a few exceptions, tend to be doing so outside the Premier League.
Hodgson contemplates a gathering storm of dwindling numbers of English footballers at the nation’s best clubs – there are only three in his senior squad from Manchester City and Chelsea combined – and post-World Cup apathy. He acknowledged the country was suffering from a bad case of “post-World Cup depression and disappointment” but questioned what else he could do.
Video: Roy Hodgson's press conference
Hodgson said: “They [the players] are what we have. People can say to me ‘Well, if you had chosen a different XI; if you had dismissed all of these ones and brought something else in it would be something different’, but that is not the case. The case is we have these players. I believe in them, I think they are going to be good enough. Especially if they continue to get their chances at club teams. I think they will develop. I think in 2016 we will see a good England team.”
Even taking into account a difficult first qualifier against Switzerland, 11 places above England in the Fifa rankings in ninth, it would take a monumental effort of incompetence not to reach Euro 2016, where even third place should be good enough to qualify for the 24-team tournament. More of a concern this time is the state England will be in by that summer.
It has reached the stage when the inclusion of players not being picked by their club sides has ceased to be remarkable, given how often it happens. Danny Welbeck and James Milner are the two obvious candidates from this latest squad but there are others too. “It is a fact that 10 years or even five years ago, it was unthinkable for someone who was playing for England that they would not be first choice in their club team,” Hodgson said. “I don’t have that luxury any more.
“Now I need to select players who aren’t even guaranteed a starting place in their club teams because of the way the Premier League has developed. That is where we are and where we are working. We are trying to come to terms with it and deal with it. If it means working with a younger team with potential and it costs us leaders, I can’t wave the magic wand and bring back a leader in defence, with one or two in midfield and one or two up front.”
Of course, no one is sure whether this is simply a difficult phase the English game is heading into, soon to be remedied by the Elite Player Performance Plan and a new generation of players schooled in the modern academies, or a terminal decline.
“I don’t think we’re heading for mediocrity,” Hodgson said. “I think there’s great potential. There’s hope. It’s not going to be solved overnight. For years you’ve watched players you’ve believed in and admired, but unfortunately they haven’t produced the results you would have wanted them to achieve.”
Achieving those results was, Hodgson said, “going to be even harder”. He is going to battle on in front of what could be a crowd of less than 40,000 at Wembley on Wednesday, which would be a record low for an England game in the new stadium. Typically, given the English devotion, it would still be one of the biggest international attendances around Europe.
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