What should Roy go with against Montenegro and Poland: youth or experience? These aren’t friendlies, or weaker opposition in which certain players can be integrated. These are two dangerous teams, neither of whom we have beaten in this group, and the stage on which England meet them can more or less be described as knockout competition.
So this isn’t the time for experimentation, this is the time to pick the best team possible. So when I talk about Barkley and Townsend, I’m not trying to produce a projection of whether they could be good enough to take over from the likes of Gerrard & Lampard one day, I’m talking about whether they are good enough to fill their boots now.
The fact is that it’s the norm to go for experience over the younger names in situations like this, because the coach will usually think they are better, prepped for the occasion and fundamentally more reliable.
Would the team be stronger with Barkley and / or Townsend in the side rather than, say, a combination of Gerrard, Lampard, Carrick and Milner? For the sake or qualifying for the Brazilian World Cup, let’s consider it.
We can be fairly certain that Jack Wilshere will be playing as a central midfielder come Montenegro and Poland, but should Barkley take one of the slots next to him?
In a defensive sense, Barkley is very enthusiastic. So far this season he has entered a total of 104 ground 50-50s – that is more than any other player in the Premier League (level with Fabian Delph) – and has completed 58% of them. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard have entered into 46 and 37 ground 50-50s respectively, Gerrard with 63% success and Lampard with 51% success. Clearly then Ross Barkley will protect our goal more than the Old Guard.
You could claim that this comes down to the way that teams play and also that Liverpool and Chelsea will have more of the ball (so they won’t be chasing a tackle as much). I don’t buy into that though. Most of all it’s a question of mobility and older players like Gerrard and Lampard just can’t physically close down the opposition as quickly and effectively as Barkley. This is why Delph, Diame, Ramsey and Hazard make up the rest of the top four in total ground 50-50s. And guess who is sixth? Lampard’s midfield partner Ramires with 86 50-50s, proving that it is more about the player than the team system.
This doesn’t mean older footballers become useless, not at all. It may have a bigger impact on the effectiveness of players who rely on their stamina and work-rate, but all it means is that they have to adapt their game to suit their new strengths. It’s why Pirlo and Schweinsteiger are still so good; they never relied on stamina or having to cover a lot of ground.
Barkley has made less passes (318) than either Gerrard (440) or Lampard (352), and he has especially made less passes than Carrick who has played a whopping 583 so far. He has a better pass completion of 89% than any of them, but on the other hand he also makes a lot less forward passes proportionate to his total amount. While the three veterans play 30% or more of their passes up the pitch, only 22% of Barkley’s go forwards.
This doesn’t mean he has no offensive contribution in the build-up though. While these three chose to use their technical ability to move the ball into attack, Barkley will grab the bull by the horns, so to speak, and use his dribbling ability instead. 29 successful dribbles from a total of 39 means that he has an impressive and unusual ability to go around the opposition. Gerrard (5) has completed the most dribbles this season out of the other three, and Lampard hasn’t even completed one. This is just a case of each of them playing to their strengths though.
Barkley has created a chance every 78 minutes on average this season, with 8 chances created in total. Gerrard on the other hand has created one every 42 minutes and Lampard every 62 minutes. So at this point, both Lampard and Gerrard are more creative than Barkley, and they are more creative from a deeper position on the pitch. The fact that Barkley often operates further up the pitch does mean that he can be a greater goal scoring threat, and he has scored twice in the league this season as evidence.
Townsend has been keeping Lamela off of the right-wing at Tottenham so far this season, and with Walcott unavailable for England has he merited a place in the national starting XI? The most likely alternatives would be Daniel Sturridge or James Milner, and there are already clear grounds for using Townsend instead of the former. Sturridge deployed on the right takes him out of his most effective position. Although he may bring something to the team out wide, with Sturridge up the middle and Rooney just behind him you are keeping the best players in their best positions.
Defensively, Townsend seems to work harder than Milner. He has entered into 85 ground 50-50s this season which is more than Milner’s 39. Moreover he has won 61% of these whereas Milner has only won 46%. Milner may have had less minutes on the pitch of course (171 less) but he still goes into less 50-50s per minute.
He is also the better passer of the two and has completed 87% of his passes with 29% of those going forwards. Milner has completed 84% with 30% of those going forwards. This passing has helped Townsend to create a chance every 54 minutes on average, with 9 chances being created in total. In comparison Milner has created a goal-scoring opportunity every 79 minutes.
Townsend is also an incredibly direct player, which is both a strength and a weakness for him. He has attempted an extremely high 48 dribbles and has completed 33 of these. There isn’t anybody in the squad let alone on the right side of field who can match this. In addition he has managed 16 shots on goal in the league, with 50% of those being on target. It is perhaps a little worrying, though, that he has taken this many shots without scoring.
The problem with taking matters into his own hands so often by dribbling and shooting is that it often means that he misses an important pass to a team mate. Shooting and dribbling is very much a head-down talent, and one of his biggest criticisms this season has been with his decision making. This is especially the case with the frequency in which he chooses to cut inside and shoot, rather than play the creative pass to the unmarked man. At the age of 22 he is not as young as Barkley and it is a flaw that he will need to work on quickly.
Should They Start?
There is a case for both players starting for England in the up-coming qualifiers. Barkley perhaps has the best one. Assuming that Wilshere takes one spot in the team, there would be at least one more starting position left, perhaps two depending on the formation that is played. Barkley has, overall, been better than any of Carrick, Gerrard or Lampard, but it is also true that his style of play is very different to theirs now. Barkley plays to his strengths, and the older generation play to theirs. He will naturally cover a lot more ground on the pitch which is useful in both attack and defence, and while Carrick, Gerrard and Lampard will sit in a deeper position and try to dictate player from there, he will work forwards far more often. Indeed, it may be that having a midfield combination of Wilshire and Barkley is too young and unbalanced – perhaps a little bit of the old style “Gerrard and Lamaprd can’t play together” argument will re-appear. If Roy Hodgson wants a strict deep-lying midfielder, then playing Barkley along side Wilshire may not be the best idea.
When it comes to Townsend there are less options for his replacement. Of all the players in the squad only Sturridge and Milner have played on the right consistently in their careers. Although he would not offer a great defensive contribution, Sturridge would be a very good option in attack, but I hope this doesn’t come to be as I want him playing up top where he naturally belongs. Sadly – for me anyway – I think it’s quite likely he will start on the right, but lets pretend from now on that he won’t. For me Townsend would be the better choice over Milner. Again, they are different kinds of footballers, but overall Townsend would be the player you would be more worried to see playing for the opposition. He works hard for the team, he can pass the ball well when he chooses too, and there is no doubt that when he is running at the opposition he is a force to be reckoned with. His only issue is that little bit of immaturity which sees him make the wrong decision all too often. Usually this is to do with shooting / taking on a player when he should pass. Milner has more of an ability to get down the line and put in a cross, although that is not to say Townsend is incapable of this with his weaker foot, but overall I would personally put Townsend above Milner in the pecking order.
So really what it comes down to is whether you prefer to have experience in the team, or rely on the cold hard fact that Barkley and Townsend have been better than the older generation of English players in their positions so far this season. What I hope we don’t do is alienate them because of their age or their only recent introduction to the national side. When a player is ready he is ready, as goes the cliche. A bit of youthful quality and enthusiasm could be just what this team needs.