Young, Gifted, Uncapped

Sven Goran Eriksson has named his England squad for the World Cup 2006. Whilst this is still provisional, the England coach has foregone the opportunity to name twenty seven opting instead to name those who will travel barring some misfortune striking. The squad is as follows:

Goalkeepers
Paul Robinson
David James
Robert Green

Defenders
Gary Neville
Rio Ferdinand
John Terry
Ashley Cole
Sol Campbell
Jamie Carragher
Wayne Bridge

Midfield
David Beckham
Michael Carrick
Frank Lampard
Steve Gerrard
Owen Hargreaves
Jermaine Jenas
Stewart Downing
Joe Cole
Aaron Lennon

Forwards
Wayne Rooney
Michael Owen
Peter Crouch
Theo Walcott

Standby List
Scott Carson
Luke Young
Nigel Reo-Coker
Jermaine Defoe
Andy Johnson

The announcement was not entirely unexpected. Well, in the selection of Goalkeepers and Defenders. Pretty much they are the ones Eriksson has picked all along, barring injury, and the only name that would probably be there if he was fit is Ledley King. In midfield all of the usual suspects are there but also the surprises start. The recall of Owen Hargreaves caused my eyebrow to raise – in a manner not dissimilar to Roger Moore – purely because he is not really talked about much. I suspect that had Kieron Dyer been fit, Hargreaves would not be going to Germany, or rather travelling across the country from his Bavarian home. Stewart Downing is not too surprising either given the lack of natural width that Eriksson’s teams habitually show, particularly on the left-hand side. The addition of Aaron Lennon was a pleasant surprise as I did not expect him to really get called up, despite some good performances for Spurs. The number of midfielders selected was slightly unusual, nine is probably more than I would have chosen particularly as none them look to me to be able to double as a withdrawn attacker. Nine has reduced the number of forwards Eriksson can take, which ordinarily one would expect to mean the dropping of Darren Bent but he did not even make the nearly list. Rooney’s inclusion keeps Eriksson’s word that he would travel with the squad even if he were to prove fit only for the final – a mighty big presumption to make, given England’s performance without him at Euro 2004, the startling lack of guile and passion shown against Brazil during the last World Cup . The final selection of the squad however is a complete “jaw dropper”. Indeed, I had to re-read the squad names to ensure that my eyes were not deceiving me, yes it really was Theo Walcott.

In doing this, Eriksson has shattered one of the central criticisms of his style. Previously chastised for appearing to be too clinical and devoid of emotion, he has in his own words destroyed that notion, admitting that Walcott’s selection could not be defined logically and it was based on a feeling in his stomach that he had – was he at the same hotel as Spurs this weekend? For Italia 90, Paul Gascoigne’s inclusion was the “Joker In The Pack” whereas Rooney fulfilled the same role for Portugal 2004. In both cases, they were established first team players for their clubs. The inclusion of Walcott is a real shock given he is a regular on Arsenal’s bench but yet to spend a minute on the pitch in Arsenal’s first team. This weekend, Wenger has been pushing Walcott forward which at the time I dismissed as him deflecting attention from the forthcoming Wigan match. It now transpires that Wenger had more than a good idea of his inclusion, letting slip that Walcott had been watched when either Eriksson himself or Tord Grip were checking on Ashley Cole’s recovery at London Colney, and that Grip had specifically watched the Arsenal youngster at England U-19 level.

As an England fan, I am concerned by the inclusion of Walcott. Not based on ability – he is as much an unknown quantity at the highest level to me or the next man, it is more the lack of experience and competitive match fitness this season. Since joining the club in January, he has made to date three reserve appearances, scoring twice. This is then added to the seventeen Southampton games he played in (five goals) and a couple of England caps at lower levels. In total, he has therefore played in no more than twenty five appearances, scoring around ten goals but none at the highest level of club football. However, he does have one advantage in that there will have been few scouts of opposing teams nor defenders who know much about him, never mind having heard of him. For Arsenal, this is great experience for the player and may propel him into the first XI quicker than anticipated. For the player this is beyond his wildest dreams. Indeed, according to his Agent the only thing Walcott was expecting today was to have passed his Driving Theory Test! Some day in his life no doubt and hopefully, the World Cup will be a success for him.

For English football, his inclusion is a damning indictment of the quality of forwards available for selection, or rather lack of it. Eriksson cannot be said to have not tried to find another scoring forward for the national team. In the Premiership, he has the choice of Jermaine Defoe – not a regular for his club, Darren Bent who can score freely for Charlton but looked out of his depth in his one appearance, Marcus Bent who would not figure immediately in my plans if I were in the Swedes stacked heels. After that, Marlon Harewood has done well for West Ham, as has Dean Ashton. After that, you start to struggle to name English forwards in the top flight. Teddy Sheringham has been mentioned as possibly going but that was wishful thinking on his supporters part, age being against the old man, James Beattie is the only other striker who springs to mind, less than a resounding success at Everton. Which then allows you to think of Championship players, perhaps Andy Johnson and maybe David Nugent of Preston.

At major tournaments, there are always players who do not make an appearance, defenders tend to be the ones who miss out more than most due to the consistency required by the ones fortunate enough to be selected. I would not expect Walcott to fall into this category given the current injury situation facing England’s forwards. Rooney is unlikely to play any part in the Group phase, the second round being the best that he can realistically hope for as a starting point and the medical bulletins issued seem to make that optimistic. Therefore much rests on Michael Owen’s woes and whether he is going to be fully recovered in time. Assuming that he is, the starting XI for the Groups will probably be:

Robinson; Neville, Terry, Ferdinand, Cole; Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Cole; Owen, Crouch

At the first sign of this not working or injury to one of the forwards, Eriksson has two options, either staying with 4-4-2 or bringing on Downing / Lennon to free up Cole to the supporting striker role (perhaps Jenas to fulfill that role directly) or playing Walcott as a direct replacement for Crouch or Owen. Which is where the real risk is being taken. What are his options if Walcott is overcome by nerves or much worse, not up to the task? Limited is a real fear. If Owen fails to make the first game, there is a real chance that before he makes his first Arsenal start, Walcott will be required to make his first England appearance. Eriksson will have weighed this up this morning before finally choosing the youngster and Walcott must be showing extremely good promise to be considered able to fulfill this potential selection headache.

Everyone will be hoping that he passes the England test when it comes calling. But I wonder what the reaction of the media will be in the morning? Incredulity will be the first, second and no doubt third, swiftly followed by chastisement for taking so huge a risk, followed by a thinly veiled threat of much vitriol and bile should it all go wrong, although given that this is his final six weeks as England Coach I would imagine that Eriksson cares not one jot. Perhaps this is even his idea of having a laugh, a touch of revenge on the English nation for the treatment he has received at the hands of our print media. Whichever way you look at it, this is a brave selection by the Swede. Only time will tell if it is folly.

Today’s Tunes come from The Kinks BBC Sessions which sprang to mind reading Ray Davies eulogy to the now departed Arsenal Stadium, Highbury, London N5.

Waterloo Sunset

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