England’s Missing Generation: Where are England’s Leaders?

Against Lithuania, Gareth Southgate fielded a team with an average age of just 24 years and 91 days. It was the youngest starting England team since Opta stats collection began in October 2002. You would have to go as far back as the late 50s to find a recorded England XI this young.

Granted, there were a few players in this team that won’t start the opening group game in Russia. Most significant absentees from this squad don’t increase the average age by much, though. Key players include Harry Kane (24), Raheem Sterling (22), John Stones (23), Eric Dier (23) and Dele Alli (21). Over half of the full squad selected for this round of internationals are aged 24 or under.

With the youth comes an alarming lack of experience at international level, particularly at tournaments. Only six of the squad have more than 30 caps, leaving the Three Lions looking short in terms of leaders heading into Russia.

By contrast, eight of the top 15 most capped England players are from the so-called ‘golden generation’. A generation that has finally come to end with Wayne Rooney’s retirement this August. Is England’s insistence to cling on to their golden generation the reason why England are struggling today? Did they, in fact, ignore the best part of an entire generation of English talent? And what became of England’s missing generation, between the golden boys and Gareth Southgate’s next crop of talent?

Current England Prospects

England succumbing at the hands of Iceland at the last Euros was nothing short of humiliation. The Three Lions may have done the business in getting to another major tournament, but Lithuania was another in a list of uninspiring performances – national expectations will be at an all-time low ahead of Russia 2018.

There has been a lot of finger pointing in the media to the root of the national team’s woes. And with a permanent captain still not appointed, England are still unsure who will be their leader in the upcoming World Cup – the star players are far from finished articles and they don’t have a player to carry the dressing room at halftime.

To create a team of world champions you need a blend of raw, unpredictable youth talent and assured stalwarts; England has an abundance of the former but not much of the latter.

The ‘Golden Generation’ Dilemma

England are missing that generation of talent who played alongside the heydey of the ‘Golden Generation’. Rio Ferdinand’s defensive partner, Steven Gerrard’s midfield partner or Michael Owen’s strike partner. Players who played with the greats in their prime and learnt from their experiences alongside them at major tournaments. All of those players John Terry, Frank Lampard and Rooney are now also gone.

The Three Lions were so sure they had got it right with the ‘golden generation’ they persisted to play the same team at each tournament. For years, the team picked itself and any surprise inclusions had little chance to replace the elite. T

his shortsighted approach is the reason England have spent less than a year in the top 10 teams since 2014. They have failed to nurture an entire generation of English talents leaving them with a team of ‘halfers’ and future prospects.

The Blueprint

You only have to look as far as recent winners to see an obvious pattern Southgate’s side are far short of. Portugal’s successful team of 2016 boasted a starting XI featuring Renato Sanches and William Carvalho alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, Pepe and Nani. Germany’s 2014 squad included Thomas Muller and Toni Kroos alongside Philipp Lahm, Miroslav Klose and Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Young exciting talent like Dele Alli or Harry Kane and stalwarts with over 100 caps to help guide them on and off the field. England’s most experienced quartet are Joe Hart, Gary Cahill, Jermain Defoe and, if he is selected, James Milner. Defoe is the only one of the four who regularly played during the peak of the golden generation. And at least three of them are at serious risk of missing the flight next year.

So what became of the generation left behind? A generation that should be the leaders of the current team. Most did feature over the years but enjoyed few caps between them. Some could even still a job today but in truth, it’s probably too late for most of them to get a look in.

Missing Generation XI

Sure, it is a humble offering from the middle generation, which attributed to many of them missing out. But there are plenty of examples of players who have performed well at international level without setting their native league alight.

Klose and Lukas Podolski are two stars who endured large patches of modest league form but always delivered for Germany. If England had taken these players into the international team and begun to build a team around them, then who knows?

There are many players who for one reason or another never made the cut, or who became left behind. Just consider for a moment England’s missing generation XI and the jobs they could have done for England.

England’s Missing XI

A front line of Andy Carroll and Charlie Austin could have added some much-needed mettle to the English approach. A nasty, physical side to the attack to unnerve teams and provide an additional outlet when Kane isn’t firing.

Before the rise of Vardy and Drinkwater, their inclusions would have raised a few eyebrows. The FA must have a department to identify talent, though, and shouldn’t be afraid to look beyond the elite. Both could have a future still for England but imagine if they were already embedded into this England team organically.

Ryan Shawcross and Scott Dann have been on the lips of many of the years but neither got a look in for England. Great leaders for their individual clubs and playing alongside Terry/ Ferdinand as kids could have been the extra boost their careers needed.

The Future

The Southgate approach is at least encouraging for the future of English football. If they can avoid heavy confidence damage in what is likely to be a disappointing tournament.

England are starting to include more young players and casting a much wider net over the talent they’re willing to look at. Increasing the number of players involved is crucial for future success. Perhaps we haven’t seen the best of England’s young talent yet. The likes of Tammy Abraham could emerge as world-class talent, playing alongside established stalwarts like Kane and Alli.

2022, anyone?!