As the dust has firmly settled on another poor World Cup performance from our national side, one particular bone of contention, and most certainly one of the most pressing issues at least, has been what direction the makeup of the squad takes from hereon in, with a favourite topic of conversation for pubs and papers all over the land being the average age of the squad.
The average age of England’s squad at this World Cup was 28.7 years of age, and it was for this reason, among others it has to be said, that we were championed as third favourites behind Spain and Brazil. Of course, our performances during the tournament made a mockery of this lofty assumption, but prior to the tournament, pundits, experts and players alike vaunted England’s experience.
Experience is a wonderful thing and if used properly it can be a huge influencing factor in pressurised situations such as the World Cup, but when you’re experience is of mainly buggering things up while massively underachieving at the same time, then ‘experience’ doesn’t really count for much.
Italy on the other hand were derided before the tournament as past their prime old codgers looking for one last hurrah. Italy’s average squad age though was 28.8. It all depends on how you spin it. I don’t credit any of the pundits on either BBC or ITV with having the hindsight to have done even the bare minimum of research before a game, and instead were a treated to a plethora of national stereotypes and tired old clichés, but it just proves that there is very little difference between experience and a team that is past the peak of their powers.
It is clear that the state of the national team is at a pivotal crossroads. Capello and Beckham have openly stated in the last week or so that they know certain players will not and are not up to the task of pulling on the England shirt again. But this presents a very real problem – do we cut our losses on the supposed ‘golden generation’, a tag that has done little for any team it has followed, and play the kids, or do we stick with experience once more going into the Euro’s and give them one more shot.
Much like Beckham rather sensibly concedes, the truth of the matter, as often lies with cases such as these, is somewhere in between. Every debateable issue is not black and white and we are still well stocked in certain areas despite the overriding temptation to cut the majority of the squad completely. Obviously a balance has to be struck. So what would the makeup of our 2014 World Cup squad look like then?
In goal, Joe Hart should make a fine custodian of the number one jersey, and should he find his form again with regular football, Ben Foster is more than an able replacement and they’ll be 27 and 31 respectively by 2014, a prime age for any goalkeeper.
At left back, Kieran Gibbs looks an exciting young talent and personally I’d still have confidence in Ashley Cole starting at the ripe old age of 33. Cole’s an exceptional left back and for my money the best in the world, hence Real Madrid’s strong interest, and I don’t foresee any potential slump in quality on the horizon due to his age, and he may even get better still.
Right back is a somewhat murkier position to dissect, and as decent as Glen Johnson is at going forward, there are glaring weaknesses in his defensive capabilities, namely his positional play, or rather lack thereof. Micah Richards is another one mentioned but has seriously gone off the rails, Nedum Onouha is a decent option to have around but he clearly needs to move to seek first team football and then there are the likes of Kyle’s Walker and Naughton at Spurs, two bright young things capable of making the step up, but whether they’ll be able to break into the first team at White Hart Lane remains to be seen. Michael Mancienne is also worthy of a mention whether it be at holding man, right back or even centre half.
At centre half, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand are not completely shot with concerns to the upcoming Euros, but at 35 and 33 years of age, 2014 would surely represent a tournament too far, so new options need to be blooded in during the qualifying campaign. Just four years ago, England were blessed with an abundance of central defensive options, so to have such a dearth of talent now really is quite shocking.
Gary Cahill is the obvious candidate, as is Michael Dawson if he keeps up his excellent form towards the back end of last season and at the ages of 28 and 30 they could be at their peak. Chris Smalling, James Tomkins and especially Phil Jones could represent decent alternatives should they continue to develop and play regularly and Ryan Shawcross could also be worth a try.
Jack Rodwell is another player being mooted for a big England future, but he’ll have to secure a guaranteed starting birth in a lively Everton side first. Many pundits, and armchair pundits, my father included, have stated that he’ll turn into a top class centre half as he matures, which may well turn out to be true, but I just think he offers so much energy and drive from the middle of midfield that it’d be a waste to confine his talents to simply playing the ball out from the back when he could making much more telling contributions further forward.
As was the case with Rio earlier on in his career though, although obviously capable of playing in midfield and doing a very good job there, he was sorely missed at the back, and where Rodwell ends up in any England side in the future may have more to do with the strength of talent around him as opposed to his own.
Steven Gerrard would be 34 by the next World Cup and whilst probably too old for a starting position, he could be a peripheral figure in the squad could be a decent option off the bench. Tom Huddlestone and Lee Cattermole offer options for the now, whereas Fabian Delph and Dan Gosling have also been mentioned and remain works in progress for the future, but one in particular that has been pressed has been Jack Wilshere in central midfield.
For the life of me I can’t fathom why. He is a winger, his strengths lie in beating his man and being in and around the box. The argument made is that he’ll provide that elusive ‘spark’ that we need in the middle, but it all just reminds of when Joe Cole first burst onto the scene at West Ham and eventually found himself shifted wide to an area where his talents were given the platform to shine.
We’d all like England to produce a generation of Xavis and Iniestas, and it’s a depressing state of affairs that Barry and Michael Carrick are the closest that we can come to producing such talents, but trying to shoe horn an undoubtedly superb talent into a position just because he’s capable of passing with a degree of intricacy shows a display of unparalleled ignorance. Wilshere has a big future for England, but I’d like to see it be on the wing.
The wings seem well stocked with Lennon, Walcott, Adam Johnson, Ashley Young and James Milner, a player who is also capable of playing in the middle and may even do so for his country more, as well as the aforementioned Wilshere, which simply highlights that we seem to have little to worry about in terms of pace at least down the flanks.
Up top, Wayne Rooney will be 28 years old and wiser for his World Cup failures. The other options are Agbohnlahor at 27 years of age, Jermaine Defoe at 31, Darren Bent at 30, and at 33 years of age Peter Crouch could still offer a viable option from the bench, not to mention the likes of Andy Carroll and Daniel Sturridge.
These are of course the options evidently available at present and for the future, but four years is a long time in football and the emergence of a quality right back, centre forward or centre half could quite easily take place in that intervening period.
The World Cup this year dealt a hammer blow to an ageing England side, their time as an outfit looks to have come to an undignified end, but it’s what we do in the future that matters most. It’s unequivocal that the squad needs an overhaul, with Heskey having confirmed his international retirement today and with others whether it be forced or by their own accord likely to follow suit, but whether an overhaul to the extent of the reactionary media is needed I’m not so sure.
We cannot compromise quality for youth if the quality of the youth coming through the ranks is not up to standard required. Promoting from within just for the sake of it is a recipe for disaster. But on the other hand, it’s clear that a blooding of new talent needs to take place soon whether it be in the qualification for the Euro’s or the next World Cup.
Gareth Barry was a peripheral figure at international level until 2007, yet made the step up quite comfortably, and despite an extremely poor World Cup, he now has 39 caps to his name and it just goes to show that players that we may discount right now are not out of the realms of possibility of a call-up should they develop and hit form.
Germany’s current blend of experience and youthful verve is a difficult one to replicate, but they have laid down a blueprint for what England should do in the future. For pessimists of the national side like myself, this summer’s limp exit came as no great surprise as the writing had been on the wall for as long as those who cared to delve deeply enough into our weaknesses could see, but our humiliation at the hands of Germany may pave the way for a young talented England side to deliver on their promise. The burden of expectation is lessened with youth and our exit to Germany may well turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Written By James McManus