Fabio Capello caused a bit of a stir last week when he left Chelsea’s Frank Lampard out of the starting line-up for England for the first time in four years. Far from cause utter outrage, the move seemed to finally endear the Italian to many England fans who feel he has had little influence on the national side since he took over as manager.
The general feeling has been that he’s unwilling or afraid to give the growing list of promising youngsters or talented but as yet to be called upon capless players lining up off the field their chance (bar Jack Wilshere), for the fear of upsetting the egos of the experienced and senior stars who have formed the core of the national team for the best part of a decade – the likes of Lampard, Steven Gerrard, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Cole and even Wayne Rooney.
Now, of course injuries to Gerrard, Glenn Johnson and the loss of form due mainly to injury of Lampard has forced Capello’s hand somewhat, plus the emergence of the likes of Ashley Young, Joe Hart and Darren Bent has seen some new players enter the England fray, but at the beginning of this season, Capello has begun to come around to the fact that these sorts of servants won’t be around forever - how many of the current squad for example, will still be playing regularly by the time the 2014 World Cup comes around? – and England will need adequate replacements.
How much has this new side of Capello been influenced, however, by another manager who himself has been bold enough to introduce a whole host of youngsters to his team this season?
Sir Alex Ferguson has long been the benchmark by which other managers in the game have judged themselves, and his need to revolutionise his Manchester United side over the summer, with the likes of Edwin Van Der Sar, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville retiring, plus Old Trafford stalwarts like Wes Brown and John O’Shea moving onto pastures new, looks to have influenced Capello. After all, of the youngsters in Capello’s England squads for the European Championship qualifiers and cancelled friendly against Holland so far this season, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Tom Cleverley have all featured.
Despite the fact that Utd won a record 19th title last season, it was no secret that the team they did it with was the best of an average bunch. An ageing Chelsea team, a Liverpool side in the midst of a transformation, Tottenham getting to grips with the rigours of combining Premier League with Champions League and Arsenal proving to be a poor man’s Barcelona, were poor challengers for the league crown and the grand master Fergie managed to squeeze the last drops out of Paul Scholes and Van Der Sar to finish deserving winners. With the ginger magician, the 40-year-old Dutchman et el leaving the Theatre of Dreams, however, Fergie knew the summer would call for a shift, with players out on loan impressing and several fringe players failing to make their mark, with the one-sided Champions League final against their nemesis Barca shedding light on the sizeable chasm that separates the two giants of world football. He went and brought in Jones, 19, and Young, as well as 20-year-old David De Gea, while promoting Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverly, also both under 20, and, so far, the kids are rewarding their manager’s faith in them.
Capello has surely been influenced by this, so the question is, how much longer will the likes of Ferdinand, Cole, Terry, Lampard and Gerrard be among the first names on the England teamsheet.
Joe Hart has been one of Capello’s few investments in youth, with the Manchester City stopper now the established first choice, although his introduction to the set-up was as much forced upon the Italian as it was inspired judgement, first with the decline of Paul Robinson’s form and the advancement in years of David James. Beyond Hart, though, the choice for Capello between the sticks hardly screams quality. Robert Green and Scott Carson have never really proved themselves to be international quality while Chris Kirkland is more familiar with the treatment room that the changing room and although Ben Foster has shone since leaving Old Trafford, he’s made the rather bizarre decision to call time on his international career.
At right back, Glenn Johnson is probably the established choice, although he is a far better attacker than a defender, but Micah Richards is beginning to fulfil his early potential and would be my bet to become the regular number two, while Smalling, who is arguably a better centre half, has proved himself capable in that position for both club and country.
At left back, Ashley Cole is still one of the very best in his position, but he is getting on and for how much longer will he be able to keep dead-ball specialist Leighton Baines out of the team?
Perhaps the more interesting case for new blood in the defence is the central pairing. Re-installed as captain after his misdemeanours, Terry’s position seems more secure, but Ferdinand, with his limited appearances due to niggling injuries making him far from secure in the United team, could be usurped for England even quicker as Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka, Smalling, Phil Jones and Michael Dawson all wait in the shadows. Terry too, who is the wrong side of 30, needs to watch his back.
In midfield, Lampard’s shift to the bench has been surprising after such a long stint in the middle of the park but I don’t think he can have too many complaints while Gerrard will have as big a job to get into the Liverpool centre midfield as he will England’s. Gareth Barry and Scott Parker seem to be the flavour of the month but Barry in particular is far from spectacular and even though Parker has finally forced himself into the England reckoning, again both players are getting older. Jack Wilshere’s emergence in the last year or two has been Capello’s boldest move since he took over and there are plenty of players queuing up to fill the boots of legends such as Gerrard and Lampard, including Cleverley, Jack Rodwell, Henri Lansbury, Josh McEachran and Jordan Henderson. In the meantime the likes of Tom Huddlestone, James Milner, Parker, Barry and Kevin Nolan look set to make up the numbers until the time comes for the teenagers to make their mark for their clubs.
On the flanks, England seem fairly sorted. Theo Walcott needs to transform his international displays over to his Arsenal form but he, Stewart Downing (helped by his move to Liverpool) and Adam Johnson (not helped by his move to Man City) are good options while Ashley Young has probably been England’s best player in the last year and his move to Man Utd and increasingly blossoming relationship with Wayne Rooney bodes well for both club and country. Aaron Lennon could find himself becoming a casualty.
Up front, Rooney’s return to form underlines his world class status, although he is England’s only striker in that bracket. Peter Crouch, Darren Bent and Jermain Defoe will always provide alternative options but none of them are genuine matchwinners in big games and with the exciting Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge beginning to start and score regularly for their clubs, they are the future potential partners for Rooney, although of late Capello has been deploying three up front, with two widemen assisting Rooney.
It feels as if the England team is definitely on the cusp of a new era but with Capello due to step down after the 2012 European Championships, who will the FA turn to to steer the changing young side towards 2014 and the World Cup in Brazil. One thing seems certain, whoever it is will be keeping a close eye on how Ferguson is managing his Utd team at the same time.