Gradual Decline: Calling up of veteran shows poor state of England team

Only two English players have scored as many Premier League goals as Jermain Defoe this season: Harry Kane and Dele Alli. Kane is injured, Alli is a guaranteed starter, and Defoe has been called up to the England squad. This all seems like sensible, expected news.

Defoe is still one of Europe’s best finishers and has kept a weak Sunderland team in with a chance of avoiding relegation. Yet he is 34 years of age. If there was a tournament being played this coming summer his selection would make unavoidable sense. A short-term solution to a short-term problem.

But there is no tournament. Instead there are qualifiers and friendlies for England to experiment with. His quality is not in question – nor should it ever be – but Defoe is not going to be playing for England by the time the next European Championship rolls around in 2020, and even his availability for the 2018 World Cup in Russia is questionable.

Gareth Southgate’s hands are tied when it comes to calling up strikers, however. Troy Deeney and Andre Gray are the only other English strikers to have scored eight or more league goals, although neither were in genuine contention for a place. Defoe has scored 14 in a team that has struggled far more than Watford or Burnley, so to put their returns on the same page as his are to do the former Toronto FC striker a disservice.

Andy Carroll has scored six times and the injured Callum Wilson six too. To give some context, Etienne Capoue has scored five Premier League goals this season. There is a dearth of English strikers who are scoring goals at a prolific rate and, assuming that players in the Championship are unlikely to be considered, Southgate’s selection of Defoe is a reflection of that. Even Jamie Vardy has scored only eight goals this season. The injury to Kane means England are far from full strength anyway, and Marcus Rashford finds his way to the senior squad as one of very few players who even have the potential to become a key player for England.

Defoe might not have made the England squad had it not been for injuries to Kane and Wayne Rooney, but the fact that Rooney remains an almost certain selection speaks volumes for the state of the national squad and reasons for his place in the team. His performances have fluctuated, but largely not been impressive, his reputation and experience is keeping him in contention. English forwards are not being produced to the class of Defoe, which leaves the door open for his return to the international scene.

If his performances next season match this year’s, then talk of Defoe’s age will be irrelevant. He will, at the very least, be a brilliant option from the bench for Southgate at the World Cup. The fact that his inclusion when only two players (one of whom should arguably not be picked anyway) are out injured is such an obvious one is an indictment of English football’s lack of striking talent. Rooney’s injury sees Defoe picked as the next in line, but Southgate needs better options, and one injury surely can’t justify such a backwards step.

England should be drafting through the latest cohort of strikers, but instead they have been forced to turn to a 34-year-old veteran when the planning should be for a tournament that is over 12 months away. That is not Defoe’s fault – he deserves great praise for impressing sufficiently for force his way back into the squad while at Sunderland – but it should be a warning of where England’s options currently are in comparison to many of their European rivals.