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Nov 26, 2007

England: The Next Generation

The rewards of failure are high. To fund former England manager Steve McClaren's latest villa in Barbados, they have to be. Yet for the underachieving England players, the immediate implication was merely that they now have a summer off. In the longer term, however, some may emulate McClaren in having their international careers abruptly terminated.

And the next incumbent of a particularly desirable office in Soho Square faces a series of difficult decisions, some of which McClaren dodged. The squad for the 2010 World Cup, on the dangerous supposition England qualify, could look radically different.

An inability to qualify for Euro 2008 marked the ultimate failure of the inappropriately-named 'golden generation'. Their disbandment began when Paul Scholes voluntarily absented himself after Euro 2004. Now others, probably against their wishes, will join him. Their figurehead, David Beckham, will be 35 in 2010 and while he may believe himself capable of starring on the world stage after three years in exile in Major League Soccer, few others do. His crossing retains his potency and the former captain should depart with thanks for his dedicated service. However, the Beckham bandwagon, grinding on remorselessly, will not be missed.

Gary Neville, whose status as first-choice right-back went unquestioned for a decade, has also said he would never retire from international football. Yet injuries have impeded him significantly in recent years and the emergence of Micah Richards has given England a more youthful, vibrant alternative on the right flank. Whether his deteriorating fitness may prompt Neville to imitate Scholes and Ryan Giggs and concentrate on life at Old Trafford, brother Phil, lacking the distribution required at international level, should join him on the sidelines.

David James and the valiant Sol Campbell, the two oldest members of McClaren's final squad, are also unlikely to be around in 2010. At least the latter can console himself with the thought that, unlike the majority of his much-vaunted contemporaries, he excelled at the highest level of international football.

As his recent renaissance for Chelsea demonstrates, it is far from impossible for Frank Lampard, whose 32nd birthday falls during the 2010 World Cup, to reclaim his finest form. Yet it is seen most often for Chelsea, and with a resolution of the Lampard-Steven Gerrard conundrum no nearer, the former's unwillingness to accept criticism and unpopularity with the England support could make a tactical withdrawal from the international scene the easiest option. If not, McClaren's successor should bear in mind that the best 11 players do not necessarily constitute the strongest side.

Michael Owen is unlikely to voluntarily withdraw his services and not just because he is still only 27. He may deny a fixation with breaking Bobby Charlton's record of 49 international goals, but it is hard to believe such protestations. If ambition is admirable, however, Owen's preference for playing with a target man counts against Wayne Rooney and makes the team more direct.

In the department of the game where concession of possession is most costly, England's archaic tactics in the second half against Croatia should be a case for the removal of the taller striker - harsh though it would be for Peter Crouch - if only to prevent his team-mates from launching hopeful punts forward.

Moreover, contrary to some opinions, 4-4-2 is not the panacea for all English football's ills. While McClaren's foray into 3-5-2 in Croatia was disastrous, there should be recognition that three central midfielders are often required to maintain possession and dictate play. While a three-man back-line would be unpopular, that can be achieved with the 4-3-3 occasionally tried by McClaren and Sven-Goran Eriksson. It would also enable England to utilise the pace of an emerging generation of attackers such as Theo Walcott, Aaron Lennon, Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor who, though few are conventional strikers, possess pace in abundance.

It may not necessarily suit Owen but Rooney should benefit from a more fluid, interchangeable attacking configuration that has more in common with Manchester United and Arsenal than McClaren's England. It could yet extract the best from one of England's international underachievers.

The system would also enable England to return to the compatible axis of Gerrard and Gareth Barry without sidelining Owen Hargreaves, best suited to patrolling the area in front of the back four. The gifted David Bentley is an alternative, both among the central roles or on the flanks and by 2010, the precocious Michael Johnson may provide competition for a midfield place.

Yet progress is not always smooth. Too many of Lennon, Anton Ferdinand, Curtis Davies, Steven Taylor, Glen Johnson and Darren Bent have lost either their way, their form or their place. While a rapid reversal of fortunes can be effected - and Lennon may be a beneficiary of the Juande Ramos era at Tottenham - many of England's youthful defenders are growing accustomed to life on the bench.

Yet if injuries continue to mar the careers of Ledley King and Jonathan Woodgate, understudies are required to the quartet of Ashley Cole, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Richards, especially if Jamie Carragher does not rescind his international retirement.

Others, tainted by the disastrous McClaren regime, may be forced to use international breaks to recuperate. They could include Wayne Bridge, Stewart Downing, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Wes Brown, Andrew Johnson and Paul Robinson, Scott Carson's error against Croatia notwithstanding.

Because it is a time to usher in some of those untarnished by failure, to implement a system more suited to international football and to provide an injection of pace. And while predictions of the future can prove as foolish as McClaren's recent assertions that England would qualify and he would survive in his position, a squad such as this could head to South Africa in 2010:

Goalkeepers: Ben Foster, Scott Carson, Robert Green.

Defenders: Micah Richards, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Steven Taylor, Joleon Lescott, Leighton Baines.

Midfielders: Owen Hargreaves, Steven Gerrard, Gareth Barry, Mark Noble, Michael Johnson.

Forwards: David Bentley, Joe Cole, Ashley Young, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Aaron Lennon, Theo Walcott, Dean Ashton, Wayne Rooney.


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