To say that the English national team has had unreasonable expectations placed on their shoulders in the past would be an understatement. Common sense and logic has always been swept away by passion and excitement for the beautiful game, generating hype that English squads have never really merited. The Three Lions have never been outright favorites, both because of their own shortcomings as well as the obvious superiority of other nations. However, the English media and the country as a whole have been guilty of harboring unrealistic, impractical expectations for their side, expectations that have almost always weighed down a team that knows nothing short of victory will be acceptable. The English squad has suffered from this burden in the past and has come home from international tournaments in despair every single time.
The build up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil has been surprisingly devoid of the traditional hype surrounding the Three Lions with the usual sky-high expectations tempered. There are many possible reasons for this unnatural phenomenon. England, despite the presence of Manchester United star Wayne Rooney, lacks a truly world class, top ten in the world player. The defense, which has been served by the likes of John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Cole, and Gary Neville in the past, now has a distinctly average look about it. Furthermore, England’s group has rightly been dubbed the Group of Death with Euro 2012 finalists Italy and South American powerhouse Uruguay (along with Costa Rica) joining Hodgson’s men in Group D. Ultimately, the public could have realized that the English squad is simply not good enough to win the World Cup; on paper, there are 7 or 8 teams with more talent, skill, and quality.
A quarterfinal finish would be greeted as a great success with more than a few predicting a group stage exit for the 1966 champions. Italy are favorites to win the group while Costa Rica are likely to finish last. This sets up an intriguing contest between England and Uruguay, who will benefit from the familiarity of South American conditions as well as the presence of red hot striker Luis Suarez. Expectations are so low for the Three Lions in Brazil that a recently published government report saying that “there is a high probability that they [England] will not be playing in the later matches.” The report sees only a 54% chance of England progressing past the group stage; that figure drops to just 11% for reaching the semifinal and beyond. Taking everything into account, the low expectations are justified.
However, a different kind of excitement can be sensed amongst English supporters. With an eye on the future, Roy Hodgson has selected a squad that has experience and household names but also features the next generation of English football. Hodgson has called up the usual suspects in Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, and Frank Lampard but he has also given spots to the likes of Luke Shaw, Raheem Sterling, and Ross Barkley. These young, precocious, and exciting talents lit up the 2013/14 Premier League season with their flair and bravery and now they have the chance to show their skills on the biggest stage in football. All three of those players were voted by Outside of the Boot‘s readers in the #TalentRadar Readers’ Team of the Season at the 2013/14 #TalentRadar Young Player Awards.
Along with the aforementioned trio, Hodgson has included Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jordan Henderson, Jack Wilshire, and Phil Jones as seven players aged 23 or under will be on the plane to Brazil. As a result, this English squad has the second lowest average age in English World Cup history: 26. These players lack experience, but they are in the squad on merit after impressive performances in the Premier League.
Hodgson’s selection is a gamble: only 6 of the 23 players in the squad have been to a World Cup before. The presence of veterans Gerrard and Lampard will certainly be crucial for their knowledge, experience, and leadership. On the other hand, the bold selection highlights a welcome change in the philosophy of English football. Gone are the days of the 4-4-2, long ball and target man style of football that has been so prevalent in English football’s history. This summer, England will most likely set up in a 4-2-3-1 and play attractive, attacking football.
The XI possesses energy and talent; it notably features a group of Liverpool players and Hodgson will hope they bring the Merseyside team’s flair and high-intensity pressing game to the national team. Southampton’s Adam Lallana and Ricky Lambert, Everton’s Ross Barkley, and Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain will bring a similar passing ethos. In combination with Wayne Rooney, this team possesses creativity and skill not usually associated with the Three Lions. Translating the style of football played by clubs to the national team certainly will not be straightforward but England will be counting on the fearlessness and exuberance of youth to carry the team forward.
England are not amongst the favorites for the World Cup this year; certain bookmakers place the Three Lions at 10th favorites to win in Brazil. The expectations are justifiably low, even within the island nation with many fearing a humiliating group stage exit. However, Hodgson’s faith in youth generates a unique kind of exhilaration, one that leaves English fans excited for this summer and for the future.