Opinion: A lack of quality and the cap-gifting culture has overseen England’s decline

By Sam Smith

In 2006 England travelled to the World Cup with one of its strongest squads since 1966. The ‘golden generation’ were one of the favourites to win the competition in Germany and rightly so.

David Beckham captained a team that featured Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole in their esteemed primes. Gary Neville, David James and Beckham provided valuable experience in their 30s while Wayne Rooney, at the tender age of 20, was already playing regularly in a successful Manchester United side having moved from Everton two years earlier.

It was the last time the Three Lions entered a tournament with genuine world-class talent. Not once since has a manager perfected the balance between youth, experience and quality as executed by Sven Goran-Eriksson with his 23-man squad in 2006.

England fans rejoiced at the vast quality in the squad and knew the side were unfortunate to not go further than the quarter-final, having been beaten by Portugal in a seemingly traditional penalty shoot-out defeat.

Just over a decade later, England’s decline is markedly obvious and quite frankly sad. There is a sense among England supporters  of not quite appreciating what you have until its gone.

Gareth Southgate is currently preparing for next summer’s World Cup and will face Germany and Brazil tonight and on Tuesday respectively with one of England’s worst-ever squads.

Injuries have curtailed Southgate’s latest plans to identify his preferred team and system and the former Middlesbrough player and manager is missing several key players. Harry Kane and Dele Alli have forged an almost immaculate understanding at club and international level but miss the upcoming friendlies through injury. Raheem Sterling, Harry Winks and Jordan Henderson will certainly travel to Russia next summer but have also been forced to pull out of the latest squad.

Southgate has had little luck although, quite alarmingly, his England blueprint is yet to be established. In qualifying matches he has opted for the rather safe, tried and tested 4-2-3-1 system while in friendlies he has trialled three-at-the-back variations with differing success. Not even Southgate seems to know in which direction he wishes to take the current England set-up.

It’s a worry that Southgate’s England identity is yet to be found 12 months into his tenure. However, a big reason for this is out of Southgate’s control: previous England managers have developed a culture of handing debuts frequently to lacklustre talent. It’s almost as if part of Fabio Capello’s remit was to cap as many players as was practically possible and the Italian’s successors have continued the trend.

The culture of an apparent competition among recent England managers to provide international recognition to seemingly anyone eligible for selection is a threat to the national team’s long-term future.

International football management should be about planning ahead. Finding a settled and trusted group of players who can be given time to bond during qualifying and then use the momentum to perform well at a tournament is beneficial.

You would have to go back a long way to find two successive squads that were identical. The eleven that started the Three Lions’ opening game of Euro 2016 had eight changes to the team that started their final game of the 2014 World Cup against Costa Rica and the eventual result in 2016’s competition was no coincidence.

Of course, injuries and suspensions influence changes but England managers have been renowned for making unnecessary switches to squads. Hence England have lacked identity and it coincides with the dreadful performances at tournaments.

In 2014 Roy Hodgson named players in his World Cup squad who had sparsely featured in qualifying. An 18-year-old Luke Shaw, who had yet to feature in a competitive international, was named over the vastly experienced and arguably better Ashley Cole. Ross Barkley walked into a squad after a single good season at Everton, and Rickie Lambert was included after playing well in an over-achieving Southampton team. None of the three had featured much in qualifying and were thrust upon a new set of team-mates, forced to integrate and expected to contribute to a successful World Cup campaign. It was a near impossible task.

It’s far too easy to earn a call-up and an exclusive Twitter poll shows that England followers agree with the notion. England fans glorify players who have won just a solitary cap but the fact they have failed to earn further recognition begs the question of why they were involved in the first place.

Southgate has been bold to look to the future with his latest squads. The inclusions of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tammy Abraham and Joe Gomez for the games against Germany and Brazil are justified, even if they probably will not go to the World Cup, given their good performances and reliability in through the England age groups and into senior football in the Premier League. Nathaniel Chalobah would also be involved if not for injury.

But other inclusions are nonsensical. Jack Cork and Jake Livermore, both in their late 20s and unlikely to ever forge a successful international career, are good players in their own respective rights but are nowhere near the required quality. In 2006 England fans debated how world-class talents Gerrard and Lampard would fit into the same midfield but eleven years later the current central midfield options are Cork, Livermore, Loftus-Cheek, Jesse Lingard and Eric Dier. Only the latter will almost certainly go to Russia and is set to captain England in tonight’s friendly with Germany.

There is a sense that Southgate knows of the lack of quality at his disposal but masks it with his positive soundbites in press conferences. Livermore’s inclusion in recent squads appears to be nothing more than a mere message to the Football Association that there has been a failure over the last ten years to develop excellent footballers. He is forced to pick Livermore and his like because there is no alternative.

Southgate could benefit England’s long-term future by picking consistent squads. The idea of picking players based on form is flawed; a player’s form is temporary and while one individual plays well for half a season, another plays poorly but by the time a tournament approaches each player’s form could have reversed. By theory the player playing better at the time of the tournament would replace the player whose form has declined. But, in practise, that generally doesn’t work.

If England are to be successful in Russia next year, Southgate needs to begin building a settled, regular squad right now and must stick to it. The most successful teams are the ones that have stayed together over a long period. England have not and the last decade’s results are no coincidence.

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