Of course, nobody will believe me now, but in the past week it did briefly drift through my mind that Theo Walcott might be a potential replacement for Rooney at the World Cup. However, my next thought was “Naaaah”, so I can only claim to have been marginally less surprised than the rest of the country at his selection yesterday. Even so, I can see exactly why Sven has made this choice and I’ll happily stick my neck out and say that he has done the right thing.
The main reason Sven has given is a sound one: Walcott has pace and pace is what England will need against the top-class sides at the World Cup. Our two quickest strikers are both carrying injuries and Sven needed to find a player who can do what they do. The endless replays of Walcott’s five (count ’em) goals for Southampton provide at least some evidence that he can. The fact that Arsene Wenger hasn’t played him yet is no reflection on his talent, but says more about Wenger’s patient approach to management and the numerous alternatives at Arsenal (with question marks over the future of Henry and Bergkamp – have a happy 37th birthday tomorrow, Dennis – he could well get his chance next year).
Although sound claims have been made for Jermain Defoe and Darren Bent, ultimately you don’t look at either of them and think ‘world class player’, whereas you look at Walcott and think ‘potential world class player’, which is better than nothing. The England squad is only a meritocracy up to a point: sometimes you don’t take the best players available, but the players who might win you matches. Hence the inclusion of Peter Crouch, whose form this season has been variable, but who is difficult to play against and can unsettle defences. And yes, I know you don’t look at Crouch and think ‘world class player’ either: I might have taken Defoe instead, but both have suffered fluctuating form this season and Crouch has the advantage of not being very similar to Michael Owen but not quite as good, unlike Defoe.
However, with Rooney unlikely to make the tournament and a question mark over Michael Owen’s fitness, I do think we need to take Defoe regardless. We don’t want to be in a situation where Owen’s injury recurs halfway through the first match and we’re left starting Walcott and Crouch up front in every game. Unless it looks like Rooney is likely to be fit for the knock-out stage, I’d drop him for Defoe. Odd that nobody is wondering where Emile Heskey is in all this.
For an encore, I will now go on to defend the selection of Owen Hargreaves, who for some reason only me and Sven think is a good player. Personally I think he doesn’t get much credit because he plays in Germany (which is a small asset in itself at this World Cup) and we don’t see enough of him to get excited. I’ve always been impressed by his workrate for England, he’s finished the season strongly for Bayern Munich and, crucially, he’s a good utility player. You always need a couple of those at a World Cup, and between them Hargreaves and Jamie Carragher can cover injuries across most of the outfield. Compare to Shaun Wright-Phillips, who does a specific thing very well – and has unfortunately lost out to a man who is playing more regularly and impressively than him, Aaron Lennon. That’s the risk of moving to Chelsea, I suppose.
I think that, with this being Sven’s last tournament with England, he’s decided that he doesn’t want to go out of it the way that he went out of the last two, being lambasted for his caution. He’s been dealt a bad hand, with the player he needs the most getting injured at a crucial moment, and he’s decided he’d rather take a gamble on an exciting player than pick a worthy but uninspiring alternative. Given the flack that’s been aimed his way in the past few years, I frankly don’t blame him. Or maybe I’m just too sentimental about the World Cup and like the idea of an untried kid being the hero of the hour: if so, I would like to be permitted to live in my happy little world until England get dumped out on their arses.