10. Fabian Delph, Aston Villa
Once one of the most sought-after youngsters in English football, the former Leeds player has settled at Aston Villa and become one of Paul Lambert’s most reliable players. He has played in 22 of Villa’s 25 league games this year, only once as a substitute. Beyond U21 level he has no international experience, but with England’s current lack of a defensive midfielder of note, perhaps it’s time Roy handed over a cap to the 24 year-old.
It’s always tough to champion the cause of a defensive midfielder because so little of their value is weighed in goals or assists (of which, by the way, Delph has two and one respectively). Consistency is what is required and Delph seems to have found this, racking up more Premier League minutes than any Villa player, outside of Ashley Westwood and Brad Guzan. Delph is young and plays regularly, which is more than can be said for a number of English midfielders.
His stunning long-range winner against Southampton recently could bring him some much-needed attention from the England bigwigs.
9. Raheem Sterling, Liverpool
With Theo Walcott out of the running, possibilities have opened up for Sterling, the youngest player in this top ten. Brendan Rodgers’ outstanding job at Liverpool has allowed the winger to flourish, and he has five goals already this term. More of a dribbler than anything else (and England generally lack that type of player), Sterling has formed decent understandings with Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard, allowing him to keep Victor Moses and Iago Aspas among others on the sideline.
One thing that may go against Sterling is the relative competitiveness that England currently has in the wing position. Andros Townsend, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Aaron Lennon have already made an impact for the Three Lions and there are more besides. If the Liverpool youngster does make the side, it will be as a wildcard-style threat, and even then he may have to rely on injuries just to make the plane.
8. Michael Dawson, Tottenham Hotspur
Though the ‘golden generation’ of 2002-2010 turned out to be a bitter disappointment, the one thing England did have then were decent centre-backs. John Terry and Rio Ferdinand were at one point one of the best central-defensive partnerships in international football, and England tended to go out of tournaments due to an inability to score, not because they let too many in.
Now, though, things are less convincing. Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka are entrenched as the starting pair in front of Joe Hart, but beyond them things are a lot shakier. Would you feel comfortable with Phil Jones as your last line of defence? Enter the Tottenham captain who, despite almost three hundred league appearances to his name, has only four England caps.
The case for Dawson is just as much a case against others. The 30 year-old plays nearly every game for a strong Premier League side. He’s not spectacular on the floor but is good in the air, and has goal-scoring ability to boot. He is a sound backup for Hodgson to call on.
7. Ross Barkley, Everton
Before the 2013/14 season Ross Barkley was mostly viewed as another potentially decent but as yet unfulfilled English talent. That all changed pretty quickly once the games got started though, as Roberto Martinez has seemingly brought the powerful youngster on leaps and bounds.
Much has been made of Barkley’s two-footedness and shooting power. The fact that he doesn’t seem mortally afraid of dribbling through the centre of the park marks him out as a nice departure from most of England’s central midfield options of the past decade or so. The 20 year-old Evertonian is an impressive sight in full-flow, but his actual output of three goals and two assists is perhaps less than one might have expected for all the hype.
Still, Barkley is currently in the luxury early days of his career, where little is expected, and every spark he does provide is treated as an eyebrow-raising bonus. He has not yet found a consistent level for club or country, but the fact remains that of the various wild-card pick being bandied around in pre-World Cup discussions, Barkley is already the consensus choice to make it to Brazil.
6. Steven Caulker, Cardiff City
Back to the centre-backs again. What was said in Dawson’s case (England lack a number of convincing central-defensive options) can also be said for Caulker. The towering Cardiff stopper has not missed a single minute of Premier League action thus far, Ryan Shawcross and Mile Jedinak being the only other outfield players who can boast the same distinction. Perhaps worryingly for the Welsh side, Caulker is their joint-third top goal-scorer with two. He also nabbed one on his England debut at the end of 2012, in a 4-2 defeat better remembered for Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 35-yard overhead kick.
Worryingly for Caulker, he has been left out of subsequent squads since his 2012 debut. Though physically imposing, he has been known to let his concentration lapse, which can be deadly at an international tournament. However, in his favour he does have his wealth of playing time, not to mention the fact that he is young, can score goals, and is relatively unknown on the international stage. These things can all make a player a far more enticing prospect than an old, safe pair of hands like Michael Dawson. Whether Roy Hodgson is prepared to give him another try on the world stage, though, is still debatable.
5. Adam Johnson, Sunderland
Outside of maybe Eden Hazard, there has not been a more in-form player in the Premier League lately than Sunderland’s Adam Johnson. The 26 year-old winger has chosen a good time to pick up his play, with the looming Denmark friendly on the horizon. History suggests he would do well to impress Hodgson, too. Though favoured by Fabio Capello during his time in charge (and Stuart Pearce for one game after Capello’s resignation), Johnson has found himself on the fringes of the England reckoning under the current manager.
As was mentioned in the Sterling section, Johnson is the type of player the side needs more of – a dribbler. He is comfortable in possession, an attribute many England players traditionally lack, which has been the side’s downfall time and again on the international stage. Johnson has seven goals and four assists so far this season, and his recent level of play will make him impossible to ignore if he keeps it up.
4. Rickie Lambert, Southampton
It was the feel-good moment of the year when Lambert, former Stockport County player, scored with his first touch in an England shirt against Scotland at Wembley. Who didn’t love that?
The Southampton striker has since played another three games for England, scoring once. However, the first half of this season proved trickier. He was in and out of his club side due to injuries and form. But now he appears to have got himself back on track, playing ninety minutes in four of the last five games. He has also amassed seven assists – more than any forward outside of Rooney, Suarez and Aguero. Not bad for a so-called target man.
It’s still touch-and-go for Lambert as to whether he will actually make the 23-man squad for Brazil. He is being pushed by club teammate Jay Rodriguez, as well as the now fit-again (though possibly suspended) Andy Carroll, another big man up front. But being a fan favourite with free kick ability never hurt anybody.
3. Andy Carroll, West Ham United
Ah, yes; the other ‘big man’. Carroll’s return from long-term injury is timely for the Hammers, who find themselves in the relegation mire, mainly through an inability to score. When Kevin Nolan is both your top scorer AND top assister, you know you’re in trouble.
Andy Carroll and Rickie Lambert both have an edge over England’s other forward options in that they offer a more direct threat to goal, a ‘Plan B’ of sorts, though ‘lump it up to the big man’ has quite often been England’s Plan A. It’s near enough certain that at least one of Carroll or Lambert will make the trip to Brazil, but I have given the former Newcastle man the upper hand. This is mostly down to the fact that Hodgson has already taken him to an international tournament; Euro 2012. His faith was repaid with a solid all-round performance and a goal in the win against Sweden, which turned out to be the undoubted highlight of England’s time in Poland and the Ukraine.
Still relatively inexperienced at international level with just nine caps, Carroll nonetheless finds himself in a premier position as England’s foremost target man. If he can pick up his form to a decent level and stay healthy between now and May, the chances are Roy Hodgson will be happy to give him the call.
2. Jay Rodriguez, Southampton
Southampton’s top scorer this year has repaid the faith shown in him by Mauricio Pochettino and then some, hitting 10 goals in 22 starts for the Saints. He has also shown versatility, and has been deployed all over the attacking third at various times as a playmaker and winger.
Despite his great year as part of a thoroughly surprising Southampton team, few would pick Rodriguez to actually make the final squad for Brazil. But the fact that Hodgson has already selected him in his previous squad for Chile and Germany, goes in his favour. As does the fact that only Daniel Sturridge has more goals than him this year among English players. His versatility is also key, since 23 players may sound like a lot, but when injuries, fatigue and form take hold, a manager will want to have the option to switch things around. With Sturridge and Rooney all but guaranteed a place in the England side come the summer, it’s likely the former Burnley man will be facing direct competition from the likes of Danny Welbeck and England’s wing options for his place. If he can keep up his goal-scoring rate, it could give him the edge.
1. Adam Lallana, Southampton
I hesitated to put Lallana on this list because I wonder if he even counts as a dark horse anymore. No English midfielder has more goals this year, and only Steven Gerrard has more assists. The 25 year-old has been perhaps the key element in Southampton’s outstanding season.
Lallana’s composure and attitude to the game marks him out as, if anything, quite ‘un-English’. His aggression is refined, and he is seemingly always looking to pass the ball forward, rather than run or clump it upfield. His build and running style are almost graceful, in keeping with the trend for modern attacking players such as Mesut Ozil or Oscar. And like those players, he is comfortable playing in a variety of positions all around midfield.
He may not be a powerhouse player, but England have had plenty of those in the past and failed miserably. When it comes to international tournaments, teams need to be able to get past a defence with guile as well as power and with his composure on the ball and all-round cleverness, Lallana could make that possible. It would be a shock not to see him included in the final 23 to represent England this summer.