Rebuilding England

England stuck in the middle

October 9, 2013
By John Brewin

The concept of a "broken team" became a familiar trope at Euro 2012. The Dutch embodied it best of all. Blessed with attacking talent, their defence was made up of a 17-year-old left-back and a selection of centre-backs that no major club would go near. Their tournament did not last beyond the group stage because all the pieces that matter did not fit together.

Portugal fell prey to the problem that has long held them back -- finding a centre-forward to complement the gifts of Cristiano Ronaldo & Co. Germany had similar problems in the centre of their defence, and Mario Balotelli destroyed them in the semifinals.

Ravel Morrison is set to make his England Under-21 debut this week.
GettyImagesRavel Morrison is set to make his England Under-21 debut this week.

Even Spain could not settle on a striker, necessitating 4-6-0 and Cesc Fabregas playing as a "false nine". Club teams can buy in players to fill talent gaps. International teams cannot. Roy Hodgson and his predecessors as England manager have spent years making do and mending, playing players out of position.

At Euro 2000, once Steve McManaman had suffered an injury, England had no one who could adequately play on the left side of midfield. A teenage Gareth Barry was considered by coach Kevin Keegan, but, instead, the nation suffered the sight of watching Dennis Wise desperately trying to get the ball back onto his right foot as he was pinned on the wing. England exited after right-footed left-back Phil Neville, overmanned down his flank, committed a foolish foul and Romania converted a last-minute penalty.

Such a problem continued at both the 2002 World Cup and at Euro 2004, when Trevor Sinclair and, bizarrely, unforgiveably, Paul Scholes played -- awkwardly -- on the left of midfield. The production of enough good players in each position has become an evermore pressing problem as the years go by. The much-maligned England academy system continues to produce players of great talent, but there are growing signs of some positions being overmanned, while others remain places of neglect. Ravel Morrison and Ross Barkley have been the breakout English players of this nascent Premier League season. Morrison's goal at White Hart Lane was of a type that followers of Manchester United's youth team were once familiar with.

Barkley's explosive runs remind of a young Paul Gascoigne. Attacking midfield suddenly looks a position of strength. And England already had Jack Wilshere to call on, with Tom Cleverley also a favourite of Hodgson. At Tottenham, much is expected of Tom Carroll, on loan at QPR this season, and, at Chelsea, the expectation was always that Josh McEachran would partner Wilshere in England's midfield.

McEachran is on loan at Watford after previous loans at Swansea City and Middlesbrough. Should Jack Rodwell, still just 22, come through, England might be blessed with a wealth of central midfield options. It is telling, though, that of the above list, only Cleverley, Rodwell and Wilshere play for a team expected to compete for a Champions League position. And even Wilshere no longer appears sure of his place at Arsenal.

Ashley Cole's withdrawal from the Montenegro game was not the heart flutter it might once have been. Leighton Baines is trusted to do the job. Kieran Gibbs, called up as backup, has enjoyed a fine season so far for Arsenal.

Behind them, Southampton's Luke Shaw is the coming force of the future. At 18, he already has a full season in the Premier League behind him. If the next World Cup allowed only left-backs and creative midfielders, then England might be along the favourites. Unfortunately, it doesn't. There are problems throughout the other departments, with those along the spine of the team of particular concern.

At the Euros, the central defensive partnership of John Terry and Joleon Lescott were outstanding, yet Lescott has since dropped from favour at Manchester City, while Terry retired from England in infamy. He was the last of a golden generation of centre-backs: Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell and Ledley King. Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill, the current pairing, are decent professionals but not in the class of their predecessors. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are essentially competing for the same spot at United, while, at Liverpool, England Under-21 captain Andre Wisdom is one of seven players competing for two positions.

Tom Cleverley found a regular place alongside Frank Lampard in Roy Hodgson's midfield.
GettyImagesTom Cleverley found a regular place alongside Frank Lampard in Roy Hodgson's midfield.

Joe Hart's crisis of confidence is a source of national concern, not least because of a talent pool that gets dryer each year. Celtic's Fraser Forster has not played a single minute of Premier League football, and there are suspicions over his technical qualities and command of a defence.

Behind those two lie John Ruddy and David Stockdale of Norwich and Fulham, respectively. Chris Kirkland, Scott Carson and Paul Robinson are three former England keepers playing in Championship football. Jack Butland, expected to compete with Hart by now, is loaned to Barnsley, as Stoke City retained Asmir Begovic after a change of management. In days gone by, the pleasing tale of Rickie Lambert's rise from beetroot packing to hammer of the Scots would not have been necessary.

England managers in the 1990s and early 2000s had a choice of Alan Shearer, Teddy Sheringham, Andy Cole, Ian Wright, Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen. In the absence of Andy Carroll, Lambert is now next-best option as a target man. Wayne Rooney has had no competition for his place for a decade. Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge are the only other strikers playing regularly for the division's elite. Beyond them, only 20-year-old Harry Kane of Tottenham, yet to play a Premier League minute this season, is in a 25-man squad among the top four aspirants. The stories of Butland, McEachran and Kane are instructive -- and typical.

Premier League clubs do not have the inclination or need to blood young talent in such key positions. The stakes have become too high to take such risks. English talent is still breaking through, but not in every position that matters.

The pressure is on academies to produce a wider variety of players.

Otherwise, England will become a yet-more-broken team.

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