Why Ross Barkley Must Start for England Against Italy at the World Cup


England's back six to face Italy is nailed on.

Joe Hart will be in goal, with Glen Johnson, Phil Jagielka, Gary Cahill and Leighton Baines across the back four, and Steven Gerrard anchoring midfield. The role alongside Gerrard will go to Jordan Henderson on form, or possibly Jack Wilshere if he can convince Roy Hodgson his body is equipped for Amazonian battle. Henderson has the pragmatist vote.

Either way, it's the four in front of Gerrard and his partner-to-be where the real debate is to be had.

Should Wayne Rooney lead the line, play in the no. 10 role or be left out of the side altogether? Does Raheem Sterling's cartoon-ish pace justify a place in the three behind a main striker? Is Danny Welbeck's athleticism and defensive solidity reason enough for the Manchester United man to start on the left? Should Daniel Sturridge roam wide, centrally, or completely free of restrictions? Is Adam Lallana, with his nuanced play, speed and ball retention, all-but guaranteed to start on the right?

Four places, so much to talk about. But the one option who's not getting the prominence he deserves in these debates is Everton's Ross Barkley.

In my XI to take on Italy, Barkley is a starter. In a slow, deliberate encounter between two European sides coming to terms with the humidity, the team with the most vitality and enthusiasm could win out. Energy and electricity will be in short supply, which puts a premium on effervescent types who can spark into life and transform the complexion of the match in an instant.

Sturridge has to be the main striker. As Gary Lineker rightly pointed out, his potential to get in behind the Italian defence could directly impact how high they keep their line. Mindful of being caught out by Sturridge's runs, Italy will be forced to sit deeper and that in turn opens the space behind for his support cast to run wild in.

If they push early at the Amazonia Arena, England can set the tone. What you then need is a trio capable of exploiting that space and keeping Italy penned in. Those three players are Rooney, Barkley and Lallana, with Sterling unlucky to miss out (Johnson badly needs the support of Lallana) and instead held back to take advantage of tired Italian legs on around the 65-70 minute mark.

The right side in my lineup is Lallana, with Rooney and Barkley encouraged to interchange between roles to the left - from where both love to cut in and shoot - and in the central zone behind Sturridge. What you have there is fluidity, and an element of unpredictability about an England side which is often as easy to read as a Rooney biography. You also have three players who can split a defence with a pass, beat their man and score a goal. Triple, triple threat

The capability of all three to interlink and keep the ball is of course vital. This is a game that will put a premium on possession, and prove a punishing test of endurance for the team who spends most time chasing it. As England found against Italy at Euro 2012, if you concede the area in advanced central midfield, you concede much of your energy with it.

Barkley's attacking prowess goes without saying. But what England also get with him is his puppy dog perseverance to close players down and potentially deny Andrea Pirlo the space he needs to thrive. If Italy are on the front foot that role may fall to Henderson, but if Hodgson's men push forward with enough conviction, Barkley, Rooney and Lallana will be the first line of defence against the bearded genius.

We're not talking about a frantic pressing game here - just England asserting themselves early on and instructing Sturridge to sit on the shoulder of the last man waiting to pounce. When the loose balls drop to Lallana, Rooney and Barkley, England can then attack Italy with pace and direction, threatening to inflict damage in a number of different ways.

Some will say starting Barkley is a gamble, but I can't see the risk. Just as experience is a proven World Cup commodity, so is the fearlessness of youth. Barkley won't be the man under pressure in Brazil this summer, he'll be a free spirit with a point to prove. That's how the 18-year-old Rooney felt at Euro 2004 and he produced the best major tournament performance of his career.

Barkley could be poised to have a similar impact, and perhaps even inspire Rooney to revisit that breakout summer in Portugal. Maybe it's time we stopped looking to the older generation to lead England forward and started to focus on the players coming through beneath them.

Barkley is ready. He's proved himself durable in the most physically demanding league in the world, and his raw talent is ready to take flight. Brazil can be his coming out party and if Barkley delivers on his potential, Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica won't know what hit them.

What a thought to imagine Barkley tearing at the Italy defence, dipping a shoulder one way and heading the other, before driving a fierce shot into the top corner.

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