Football is filled with many clichés, with arguably the truest of them all being that the England manager’s job is one of the hardest in the beautiful game.
A proud nation whose roots in inventing the game demand it always sit at the pinnacle of the sport, the manager will be the first to take the blame when things start to go wrong – and they seem to go wrong very easily. And with so many games being shown on television, combined with the rise of social media, fans across the country are handed a platform to shout that they could do better, and thus no matter what Roy Hodgson does, he will be upsetting someone. If he could walk on water, no doubt there would be a thousand tweets condemning the man that he can’t swim.
The flames of the fire have fanned this week as Hodgson has named his provisional 26-man squad for the European championship, with the country coming out in force to condemn his decisions. It was a nice problem to have; the disappointing shadow of the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ has finally disappeared, with an interesting selection of youngsters and unexpected talents emerging to cause a headache for Hodgson. Yet with strength in depth, players will understandably miss out; players that fans will believe have been robbed of a place.
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It had been raging on for weeks, but the biggest debate has centred around the inclusion of Jack Wilshere; a man who had played just 141 minutes of football this season since returning from a broken leg sustained last August.
This is not just an unfortunate one-off: this is a former wonderkid who has just 28 caps to his name despite making his England debut six years ago, whilst he has played just 35% of Arsenal’s Premier League fixtures since his breakthrough season in 2010-11. As such, it is this lack of playing time which has led to fierce accusations of Hodgson being stuck in the past, picking players through reputation and not because form demands it.
These fans have a point. Danny Drinkwater, for example, has been an integral part of Leicester’s incredible title winning team, yet is arguably most at risk of being omitted from the squad when it is trimmed to just 23 players. Mark Noble – West Ham’s stalwart that has bossed the midfield in this fine season for the Hammers – doesn’t even get a look in. And yet Wilshere has made just one start all season, in Arsenal’s final day dead rubber at home to bottom side Aston Villa.
You could almost guarantee that were Drinkwater or Noble playing for one of the ‘true’ top sides – despite Leicester being crowned champions – they would be a shoo-in for the tournament. And yet, it is to these sides – Arsenal in this case – that Hodgson’s head has instead turned to in picking Wilshere.
And yet, for all the grief he will have had, Hodgson has got this decision absolutely spot on.
When he’s not injured – which admittedly is sadly far too rare an occurrence – Wilshere is surely England’s finest midfielder. Arsene Wenger got it quite right when describing the midfielder as having ‘Spanish technique, but an English heart’. Technically adept, he is as able to pick a pass from a deep-lying midfield role as he is to crunch into a tackle to break up play, whilst he has also shown his ability to play further forward and score the odd goal when given licence to attack.
You also cannot deny his contribution to the England team, having lost just one game out of twenty in which he has started, with thirteen wins. Hodgson has faith in the Arsenal midfielder, and generally he has looked good at repaying that whenever he has pulled on the shirt.
Surely then, a fit Wilshere is a no-brainer? And it is therein the debate lies.
Few doubt the ability of the 24-year-old – though the number of injuries is nonetheless a cause for concern. The debate instead surrounds his fitness, and whether he ‘deserves’ his place over others who have had a great season.
‘Deserving’ a place is a dangerous road. If Wilshere doesn’t ‘deserve’ his place due to his lack of games in which to showcase his ability, where do we draw the line? Doesn’t Troy Deeney ‘deserve’ a place ahead of Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge due to the goals he has scored?
Doesn’t Marc Albrighton ‘deserve’ a place for being part of a title-winning side ahead of Raheem Sterling’s fourth-placed Man City? Simon Francis, Scott Dann, Danny Simpson, Michail Antonio and Aaron Cresswell would also surely have something to say about deserving a place, amongst others, given their fine form for their clubs.
Whilst it would be unjust to pick a player on reputation alone, there has to be a balance that doesn’t just consider whether or not a player deserves his place, but the capabilities of that player. And Jack Wilshere is more capable than most.
Rustiness should not be a factor for Wilshere. If anything, his absence should be considered a bonus. Look at Harry Kane, finishing his second season as Tottenham’s most important striker, having played in the under-21 European Championships last summer. He may be match fit, but is he fresh enough to continue playing through the summer? We hope so, but there will be no such worries with Wilshere, whose training, under-21 games and final appearances with the senior squad has surely brought him up to speed whilst being fit and ready to really hit his stride in the summer with no risk of burnout.
Wilshere is undoubtedly one of England’s best midfield options. Yes, he has been highly unfortunate with his injury record, and yet he is still mentioned alongside our country’s best. If he hadn’t played at all, there would be question marks about his fitness, yet the fact he has returned means he could be hitting top form at just the right time.
It is amazing that Wilshere takes most of the flak, and yet there are far fewer question marks surrounding the inclusion of both Jordan Henderson and Fabian Delph – two players who should surely be more at risk were it not for Wilshere’s injury record clouding their names from the discussion. That’s not necessarily to say that they shouldn’t be in the team, but Wilshere certainly will be.