Looking at Gareth Southgate’s squad for the Spring internationals against Germany and Lithuania you can only conclude that it shows the problems of English football writ large.
Squad: Fraser Forster (Southampton), Joe Hart (Torino, on loan from Manchester City), Tom Heaton (Burnley), Ryan Bertrand (Southampton), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Nathaniel Clyne (Liverpool), Phil Jones (Manchester United), Michael Keane (Burnley), Luke Shaw (Manchester United), Chris Smalling (Manchester United), John Stones (Manchester City), Kyle Walker (Tottenham Hotspur), Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspur), Michail Antonio (West Ham United), Ross Barkley (Everton), Eric Dier (Tottenham Hotspur), Adam Lallana (Liverpool), Jesse Lingard (Manchester United), Jake Livermore (West Bromwich Albion), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arsenal), Nathan Redmond (Southampton), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), James Ward-Prowse (Southampton), Jermain Defoe (Sunderland), Marcus Rashford (Manchester United), Jamie Vardy (Leicester City)
It eloquently expresses the uncomfortable reality that England’s best players, at this point in time, are not the stars of their club sides and in some cases are bit part contributors in the Premier League.
This looks a populist selection, packed with twinkling lesser lights. It befits Gareth Southgate’s pedigree as a former boss of England’s U21s.
Given the slim pickings created by the time of year and a mini-injury crisis, the selection of Nathan Redmond, James Ward-Prowse and Michael Keane will certainly keep the jaded hacks happy in pursuit of something new to say. But Southgate requires successful results before it can be considered a PR coup. And that is not a given with England.
After promoting the causes of a number of ex-U21 favourites, Gareth Southgate’s second gambit is his belief that even at 34, Jermain Defoe still has a point to prove for England. And he has boldly called the Sunderland striker out of the international wilderness.
Defoe has been recalled to the England squad for the double-header against Germany and Lithuania, having last played for his country in November 2013. This is another subplot that is sure to dominate the coverage of these two upcoming games.
Southgate’s decision has in large part been influenced by a striker crisis with Harry Kane, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck unavailable due to injuries and fitness concerns.
And in this context, the exclusion of both Wayne Rooney and Theo Walcott (who has scored 17 times this season – and notably in big games) is also big news.
England are currently top of Group 4 with 10 points from their four matches. They typically do enough in pre-tournament qualification to progress to the major Finals. However, once there you’d expect reality to dawn. The Premier League/academy set-up is simply not conducive to producing a team of top English players primed for international football.
There are a number of persistent negatives to contemplate: over-hyped complacent players, a lack of game time in The Champions League for top English players (in the big four or five European club sides). These are two obvious impediments to developing talent.
Then there’s the complacent, self-reflexive culture of life in what World Soccer’s Brian Glanville calls “The Greed is Good League”.
Like Roy Hodgson before him, Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to galvanise the various selfish kingdoms in his side to a common cause when it really matters – within the depths of tournament football. And an ignorant, reactive national press don’t help that either, toadying up to the clubs and sponsors for access, making the England boss’ so-called Impossible Job more difficult with every passing year, with their favouring of club games and club concerns.
And there is another bitter pill to swallow in a country that has lost its empire and with it its historic exceptionalism and sense of place in the world. As hard as it is to swallow for patriotic Englishmen, their mercenary players clearly don’t care enough or can’t combine the way Germans and Spaniards and Italian sides do when they pull on the national colours.
That all needn’t necessarily matter, of course when the manager’s brief is simply to win over hearts and minds and pick a best blend XI and a bench to do battle on the park. But it is clear that the best teams in club and international football can call on an X-factor that is above and beyond mere fitness, form or national pride to bind them together.
The teams that win tournaments, rather than flatter to deceive, have an identity, a way of playing the game that is unique to the team in question and it is an expression of their qualities as individuals and a collective.
England have basically two ways of playing: English 4-4-2 ‘set-piece and second ball’ football from out of the Ark. Or the latest bodge job, a modern compromise pilfered from a pick and mix of fashionable, poorly implemented coaching theories. One style is old hat. The other is desperately wrong-headed.
The individual composition of the England squad tells us far less than the reality of the aggregate viewed as a whole. Qualitatively, when it comes to native players, there is little approaching strength in depth in The Premier League – and there are no English players worth a name plying their trade overseas.
While English football can produce endless variations on the theme of players who excel in best company, it just doesn’t produce world class game changers of the kind found in every serious team. Nor does England produce dominant defenders or assured players capable of taking the sting out of a game to gain a result.
Never mind Messi or Ronaldo or Neymar, where is England’s Xavi or Chiellini, Godin or Modric?
This is the most glaringly obvious takeaway from Gareth Southgate’s squad to face Germany and Lithuania.
Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Dele Alli could well be players whose time is truly sill to come. But with the eclipsing of Rooney, as time takes its toll, it is crystal clear that there is precious little career-peak star quality or leadership making claims for inclusion. Certainly there is no-one in this selection that Southgate can rely upon to deliver with consistency or build a team around.
This is a squad of parts but it is probably the best that England can do.