WEMBLEY, LONDON—At the end of England’s last friendly match, against Germany in November, the debate had begun over whether Ashley Cole or Leighton Baines would be England’s first-choice left-back by the summer.
Between then and Wednesday’s meeting with Denmark, the debate had evolved, however; Cole’s benching at Chelsea had suddenly demoted him down into a battle with Southampton’s Luke Shaw to be the understudy for Baines, who had returned from injury to resume his standing as one of the Premier League's standout performers.
So following a 1-0 win over the Danes that saw Cole and Shaw play 45 minutes apiece, Hodgson moved the story to its logical next point—announcing the start of a three-way battle for the two spots on the plane to Brazil later this year.
“I thought they were both very good,” Hodgson told reporters hungry for something to write about the developing "battle" between the wise old head and the emerging prospect. “Yes, my decision now is even tougher.
“But Leighton Baines did not even get a look-in today. There is a lot of matches to be played and a lot of football to be seen between now and May.”
During the press conference, Hodgson occasionally let his defensiveness over a team performance that was hardly stellar get the better of them. Although, confronted by a media hardly known for its patience, can you really blame him? The England head coach stressed the importance of players continuing to perform as the Premier League season reaches its conclusion.
It seems probable that Baines is now Hodgson’s first-choice option at left-back, but that is the wisdom of crowds rather than the gospel according to the man who makes the decision. The way Hodgson tells it at least, Baines will have to continue producing over the remainder of the season to remain at the head of the pack.
Cole, Shaw and even Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs will all be given a fair chance to audition.
“Ashley got forward well, his defending was good—then Luke came on and carried on in the same vein,” Hodgson added.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think you could get me to say anything negative about any of the younger players tonight. I wanted to use the game in that way. I’m sure Luke Shaw will go back to Southampton very happy with his performance.”
Cole, despite currently being out of the Chelsea side, will not be at a disadvantage if that remains the case for the remainder of the season at Stamford Bridge. Hodgson has no concerns about the 33-year-old’s match sharpness, even after so long without a full 90 minutes under his belt. His experience remains a major selling point, with England’s final World Cup squad likely to contain a large number of under-25s.
“I’m a great admirer of Ashley Cole’s—and if you aren’t then you should be,” Hodgson stressed. “I think that [his record] demands respect, and he’s certainly got my respect.
“There’s never been any question about his fitness—he’s at the top of all the running statistics we have [in training].”
What was almost an official announcement of a two-month audition among the left-backs for a World Cup ticket could effectively be spread across almost all positions, with the friendly against Denmark raising far more questions than answers—particularly in midfield and attack.
Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson both pressed their cases for inclusion with strong performances from the start, while Adam Lallana was arguably the game’s most impactful player when he came on. Yet the likes of Ross Barkley and Steven Caulker, who (perhaps surprisingly) did not get any time on the pitch, will surely now return to their clubs with additional motivation to make their Premier League displays draw Hodgson’s eye.
The boss has pledged not to be afraid to pick youth over experience if that is the selection most warranted, although he stressed that did not necessarily mean he would pick Shaw over Cole.
“I couldn’t deny your logic,” the ex-Fulham manager admitted, when asked if England were going to send a younger squad to Brazil than in World Cups past. “There have been a lot of young players [in my squads].
“I think it’s probably obvious that we are looking in that direction—but I don’t feel under any obligation.”
With no more friendlies to come before Hodgson names another 30-man squad to his preliminary World Cup selection on May 13, the players have been told what they need to do now to remain in his thoughts.
Lallana, almost unprompted, spelled it out to a reporter right after coming off the pitch: “I'm delighted [with my performance]. But we have to keep our form with our clubs now to keep in contention.”
The left-back position may draw the attention in Thursday's columns, but there are places to be fought for across the pitch.
“This World Cup means a lot to the players,” Hodgson stressed. “They are going to do everything in their power to impress me. And they will have to keep doing that in the next two months.”