Hodgson's mission: find an 'English Ibrahimovic'
Manager has fielded 44 players in 12 matches in charge but is still pinning his hopes on Wayne Rooney. Sam Wallace assesses the talent pool issues he faces
Roy Hodgson said this week that he first recognised Zlatan Ibrahimovic's talent when the then-teenager was playing in the country's second division for Malmo. The inevitable question was: do England have a match-winner of that stature, a man who can transform a game on his own?
Hodgson's answer, as it has been, for his three predecessors, was that Wayne Rooney, absent through injury this week, was the candidate. "Rooney is a top-class player," he said. "We have to hope he can produce top performances and I believe in Wayne Rooney very strongly, as of course do Manchester United." He named Steven Gerrard as well and, straying from the original question, he also mentioned Michael Carrick.
Just six months into the job, Hodgson is entitled to say that he must keep an open mind about his players. Nevertheless, Euro 2004 aside, the danger of relying upon Rooney is illustrated by his failure to play anywhere near his best for England at his last three tournaments. It would be fair to say that Ibrahimovic has never carried Sweden at a tournament either. But more than six years after Rooney's red card at the 2006 World Cup finals, the "trust-in-Wayne" mantra is still the fall-back option.
"I agree with you [there needs to be an alternative to Rooney] and I think some of the players out there [against Sweden] have shown there are other options if they continue to improve," Hodgson said.
So, what is the talent pool?
Hodgson has picked 44 players in his 12 games in charge of England and there are a further four – Kieran Gibbs, Adam Lallana, Fraser Forster and Jack Rodwell – who have been selected for squads but have, for different reasons, not won a cap under the current England manager. It is getting to the point where just about every Englishman who is a regular in the Premier League's leading clubs has had a call-up from Hodgson with a few notable exceptions.
He continues to ignore Peter Crouch, despite the Stoke City striker having scored five goals this season, five more than Andy Carroll who was also omitted from this latest squad. Rio Ferdinand and Darren Bent also remain on the outside. Nevertheless it is likely that number of 44 will rise in February when England play Brazil, by which time Chris Smalling may be in a position to play his first game for Hodgson.
Given that only 67 of the 220 players who started last weekend's Premier League matches are English, it means that Hodgson has tried out a significant proportion of all the eligible players who are regular starters for the better club sides. Already he has dropped down to the Championship to give a cap to Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha.
Who are the best of the rest?
Is there anyone else out there who remains uncapped by an England manager but who could be worth a try against Brazil in February? It is the last opportunity to experiment before the two World Cup qualifiers, away to San Marino and then Montenegro. Young players such as Nathaniel Clyne, Danny Rose and Andre Wisdom may emerge from the under-21s but for now it seems Hodgson has tried out the best of Stuart Pearce's young crop.
Now that Leon Osman has a cap, the cut-off point for an England call-up is just above the likes of Grant Holt, Rickie Lambert, Leon Britton, Nathan Dyer and Danny Graham. It is a far cry from the days when a regular starter at the league champions – Steve Bruce – would go his entire career without an England cap. Nowadays, if you play a handful of games for one of the top Premier League clubs, and you are English, you are virtually assured of a cap.
And the emerging hope is...
The most promising of all the debutants on Wednesday night was Raheem Sterling, who at 17 did not look out of his depth in senior international football. It was his pass to Ashley Young that set England on their way for their first goal of the night and he looks like one of those who could yet remain in the squad.
"He [Sterling] had a difficult start," Hodgson said. "The first challenge put him down and severely winded him. I was a bit concerned how he'd react to that. But I thought his reaction was very good and he had a golden spell towards the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half and that bodes very well for the future."
Sterling's difficulty will be establishing himself as a wide player, a position in which England are fairly well served on both flanks. Nevertheless he is young and if he continues to play for Liverpool's first team he will be difficult to ignore.
Tough test: Montenegro, 26 March
Not since England played, and lost to, Croatia in November 2007, which denied them a place at Euro 2008, have the national team faced a qualifier of such significance as the one against Montenegro, who lead Group H. Even Fabio Capello's famous 4-1 win over Croatia four years ago came very early in qualification when the stakes were not as high as they are now with four games played already in World Cup 2014 qualifying.
If England lose in Podgorica they can still qualify in first place for the tournament in Brazil next year. But defeat will significantly increase the pressure and reduce the margin for error. Failure to qualify is unthinkable for the FA, which is taking the squad to Brazil this summer to play the hosts and potentially one other game, as a means of preparation for what it hopes will be their participation in the World Cup the following June.
Hodgson said on Wednesday night that he thought that even in defeat, his first in 12 games excluding the Euro 2012 elimination on penalties to Italy, his side played better than they did when they subsequently defeated Italy in a friendly in August.
"I'm in a much better position when it comes to assessing players and knowing what I can get out of an England team than I was on 13 May when I came into the job from West Bromwich Albion and went straight off to the Euros. It's been a very good learning curve."
There is little doubt that, partly because injuries have forced him to, Hodgson has wrought change upon England. Players such as Gerrard, of Liverpool, and Chelsea's Ashley Cole still survive from the "golden generation", but they do so on merit.
The team is in flux to an extent that it has not been for years. The challenge for Hodgson now is to combine change with delivering England safely into qualification for the next World Cup, in Brazil in 2014.
Home from home: English head count
Manchester United and Southampton had the most English players in their starting line-ups last weekend.
6 players Man United, Southampton
5 Liverpool, Norwich, West Ham
4 Everton, Reading, Tottenham, Stoke, Sunderland
3 Aston Villa, Newcastle, Swansea
2 Chelsea, Fulham, Man City, WBA
1 Arsenal, QPR, Wigan
All hail Zlatan: How Swedes saw it
Zlatan Ibrahimovic could probably not have dreamed of a better evening.
PSG striker won the game on his own with a great quadruple.
We were in Zlatan's arena. We come from Zlatan's country. And if ever we needed symbols and leaders, it is now."
'Crazy Ibra goal against England'
Gazzetta dello Sport
From now it's called Zlatan arena
'Ibrahimovic scores goal of the century'
An audacious bicycle-kick which is sure to be remembered for a long time
Imitations of Ibra: Six stunning volleys
1. Trevor Sinclair, for QPR v Barnsley, 1997
A hopeful cross from the right wing was met by Sinclair from just outside the area and his effort whizzed past the Barnsley goalkeeper
2. Mauro Bressan, for Fiorentina v Barcelona, 1999
From 25 yards out the Italian hit the ball on the half-volley for it to loop over the goalkeeper and enter the net via the crossbar.
3. Ronaldinho, for Barcelona v Villarreal, 2006
A floated delivery into the area from Xavi was controlled by the Brazilian on his chest. The bicycle-kick that followed was staggering.
4. Dimitar Berbatov, for Manchester United v Liverpool, 2010
After controlling a cross from Nani with his knee the Bulgarian twisted his body to convert via the crossbar on his way to a hat-trick.
5. Wayne Rooney, for Manchester United v Manchester City, 2011
Nani's ball into the box was met powerfully by Rooney, who catapulted a volley past Joe Hart to win the derby.
6. Radamel Falcao, for Atletico Madrid v America de Cali, 2012
The Colombian timed his jump to perfection, rising perfectly to dispatch a delivery from a corner.
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