Ahead of England boss Fabio Capello’s first squad announcement since the team’s humiliating World Cup campaign, pundits, former players and fans had been calling for change, an influx of fresh, attacking-minded talent to a side which looked desperately off-the-pace in their record World Cup defeat to an electric German side. Capello fulfilled this expectation. Adam Johnson and Theo Walcott are in - two players who, in hindsight, Capello made a mistake in not taking to South Africa. They, as well as new faces Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs and Bobby Zamora, will inject some much-needed youth and pace into England, who, behind Brazil, landed in South Africa with the second-oldest squad of players. Some younger talent in Gary Cahill and Ashley Young has also been added at the expense of some of our World Cup flops. These look like positive changes from Capello, but has he got it right this time? Do his changes go far enough? Are they too drastic? Most importantly, is this new, younger side the answer to the problems of our national team the fans have been looking for?
In terms of selection, Capello has certainly rectified some of the mistakes he made with his squad of 23 who many foolishly expected to advance deep into, and perhaps even win, the World Cup. The talented but unreliable Ledley King, who represented a late gamble on the Italian coach’s part, as well as a complete selection policy U-turn, is out, along with twelve others from the line-up, with Green, Defoe, Crouch and Wright-Phillips amongst the highest-profile absentees. Emile Heskey and Jamie Carragher only saved themselves from the chop by announcing their retirement, and re-retirement, from the international scene. The likes of Johnson and Walcott, the latter a controversial and unpopular omission in South Africa, are positive, forward-thinking choices, while the discarding of Aaron Lennon shows others will be given the chance if a player underperforms in the shirt. The selections of Wilshere and Gibbs are also welcome ones, hopefully representing a statement of intent by Capello for a new England, and not just a knee-jerk, temporary reaction to a vast underachievement in the summer.
Having said that, of the 13 out of 23 changes to Capello’s ‘new England’, there are some highly questionable ones. What of England’s central midfield? It features only Barry, who is lucky to be retained, and Lampard, who will turn 34 during England’s next major tournament (for which their qualification campaign begins in September against Bulgaria) as Capello continues to ignore Gerrard in this role. Lee Cattermole and Tom Huddlestone will consider themselves unlucky to miss out this time. Some stranger decisions include the dropping of Joe Cole, labelled a ‘genius’ by his former coach and Capello compatriot Carlo Ancelotti, and somewhat more curiously the sidelining of Tottenham duo Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe. Crouch has a respectable record at all levels of the game, while Defoe, one of England’s better performers in South Africa, has been replaced by Darren Bent, who has continued to disappoint at international level and was deemed inadequate for England duty by Capello just two months ago. This is not a step in the right direction. These decisions do not seem to reflect the best interests of the national team, and even seem to fall in line with Capello’s traditionally ruthless and dogmatic approach to his selection, a crucial mistake of his during the World Cup.
Indeed, if Capello wants to learn some lessons from South Africa, he could learn to be more pragmatic with his selections and approach to the game. If our disastrous World Cup campaign shows us anything about our coach, it’s that no matter how successful and experienced one is, he still has lessons about the game to learn. A few more lessons Capello will hopefully have learned are the importance of naming your number one before the tournament, as demonstrated by Joachim Löw, who, faced with similar problems with Germany, named Manuel Neuer as his man long before the tournament started; working hard on the training pitch and studying your opposition, a weakness pinpointed by Philipp Lahm after the match, the Germany captain’s side were tactically perfect in Bloemfontein; and realising that Steven Gerrard is not a left-midfielder and links up well with Rooney in the middle. The sign of a successful or unsuccessful manager is not necessarily the mistakes he makes, but how he learns from them and improves his team. This aspect will show itself during the qualifying campaign and at the next major tournament, but on first inspection, Capello’s rigid, uncommunicative and stoic style remains, only this time it seems to have taken on the form of selecting ‘new’ players, simply because they weren’t involved in the World Cup disaster, which could prove an equally harmful policy if he continues with it.
All reservations aside, brining in the younger faces is certainly the right decision. The complaint by many experts of the game is that there are too many foreign players in the Premier League, preventing young English talent prevailing at our highest level. This is seen as the biggest problem with our game, and the most important reason for which our pool of players for selection is so weak. This argument is by no means invalid, but Johnson, Walcott, Wilshere et. al. offer encouragement and development in that department, while some names such as the aforementioned Cattermole, alongside Jack Rodwell and Nathan Delfouneso will hopefully be pushing for selection soon. Indeed, some deeper-lying problems are stunting the growth of our national team, and it is none more obvious than in this current squad. Within two days of each other, Paul Robinson and Wes Brown have caused embarrassment to Capello by rejecting their call-ups and announcing their international retirement. Both are aged 30, a physical and mental peak, and well-below the average age for international retirement. The problem is that players consider playing for their clubs more important than playing for their country. Brown is quoted as saying his retirement will allow him to ‘concentrate on my club career’, while Robinson sees little personal gain in travelling around Europe sitting on the bench behind Hart and Foster, itself not even a guarantee. Previously, Jamie Carragher sulked at his not being an England regular, and focused his training and attention on Liverpool, while past greats in Shearer and Scholes have retired prematurely to devote all their efforts late in their career to their home clubs. There was a time when selection for England, wearing the Three Lions, was the highest accolade for a player. Now, compared to fifty years ago, the incentives to play in the Premier League are just too great. With their hundreds of thousands a week in wages, success or failure at national level is becoming less and less important, and players can return to the comfort of their club careers afterwards, and who can blame them? Moreover, in exchange for these contracts, club coaches have high expectations of their players, with Arsene Wenger for one regularly complaining at the intrusive international schedule harming his players. As the Premier League becomes more and more dominant, its major consequence on the national game is not the lack of home-grown talent, but the primacy of club football over international football, not just by players but by fans too. In this vein, the national team will continue to underachieve, regardless of selection, and come the following May all will be forgotten.
To conclude, Capello’s ‘new England’ is a necessary step in the right direction, the only real choice available to him post-South Africa. Having said that, there are other problems in the English game which will prevent its national team from future success. Capello cannot merely select a new group of players and hope for the same result. His lesson-learning must reach far beyond dropping the summer’s underperformers, and he must become more pragmatic in his own selection and leadership style. From the evidence of his current squad, Capello is clearly taking positive steps towards a more dynamic national team, but he still has much to do.