Ferdinand withdrawal highlights England's dwindling resources
The furore surrounding Rio Ferdinand‘s recall and subsequent withdrawal from the latest England squad serves to illustrate how a position of depth is becoming an increasingly problematic area for Roy Hodgson’s England side.
Ferdinand’s England career had appeared to be over after he was left out of the squad for the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine, and this latest recall was certainly unexpected with regards to his manager at Manchester United, with Alex Ferguson quoted as saying, “he was as surprised as anyone” after hearing of his recall.
Whatever Ferdinand’s reasons may be for withdrawing, it leaves Hodgson with the headache of whom to select for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against San Marino and Montenegro. With Gary Cahill and Michael Dawson also unavailable, it means options are in shorter supply than the contents of Old Mother Hubbard’s larder.
Though this is an extreme case, the shortage of quality defenders in recent years has become more and more alarming. Of course, this wasn’t helped by anything that surrounded the whole dirty business of John Terry‘s trial and subsequent international retirement, but for a footballing nation that has placed so much pride in producing those lion-hearted warriors at the back for so long, how can we suddenly find ourselves in this predicament?
The game has changed immeasurably since the days when blood-soaked, bruised and battered Englishmen, armed with nothing more than a thick neck and a Churchillian ‘fight them on the beaches mentality’, would head endless, hopeful long-balls away into row Z, but surely, unlike most other positions on a field, those characteristics are still a welcome commodity in the modern game.
Unlike for instance, that classic number ten position, players for which seem to roll off the Latin and Eastern European conveyor belts with relative regularity, or the pint-sized Iberian playmakers that have re-written popular footballing dogma in recent times, the role of the center-back is ultimately bound by the same principles as back in the days when Herbert Chapman decided an extra pair of feet at the back might be advantageous and moved centre-half Jack Butler deeper to create a third back.
The tendency for Premiership managers to look beyond those basic defensive principles of ‘see ball, clear ball’, which the classic English defender has been possibly unfairly tarred with, has led to an influx of overseas players swamping first teams and consequently preventing young English talent from coming through. No one would argue that the acquisition of the best foreign talent from around the globe hasn’t improved the standards on show in the Premier League each weekend. What is more worrying though is the top clubs’ failure to bring through the best English talent.
Considering the money invested in youth development, it becomes hard to fathom how small a number of players manage to make the step up to the first team. It is especially strange with regards to defenders, where basics such as positioning can be drilled into young players in academies across the country, leaving little excuse or explanation of the dwindling numbers of academy graduates taking to the field.
A player such as Jamie Carragher is a great example of what can be achieved with hard-work and determination. Carragher was never going to be in the class of someone like the elegant Ferdinand, and as a young player, initially found it hard to keep up with the pace and step up in quality of the first team. Maybe he wasn’t the most naturally talented player, but through perseverance and with exposure to the heightened quality of the Premiership, Carragher was able to adapt, becoming a near ever-present in the Liverpool side for the next ten years.
England do currently have a set of naturally gifted defenders coming through. Unfortunately for Roy Hodgson, the likes of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Steven Caulker et al, are currently unable to gain the exposure they so badly need to take that raw talent to the next level. Jones’s versatility seems to have left him particularly vulnerable to becoming a better-than-average utility player, rather than the quality all-action future England centre-back he once promised at Blackburn.
Having made only nine starts for his club (several of which have been as a right-back), Smalling is likely to start in the crucial qualifier against Montenegro. As talented as he undoubtedly is, it is a huge pressure to put on a young player still trying to make his mark for his club, a fact only exacerbated by the lack of genuine experience alongside him. Smalling’s likely partner will be Joleon Lescott, a player who has rapidly fallen from favour with his club this season. Having been part of a title-winning Manchester City defence last year, Lescott has seemingly dropped to fourth in his manager’s pecking order this term, and consequently has picked up only nine starts in the league.
Hodgson and any future successors must hope that the forthcoming onset of financial fair play will lead to some introspection of English clubs, encouraging the development of home-grown players rather than the expensively assembled stars that has become the norm. Unfortunately, in the globalised world of the Premiership, with it’s worldwide network of scouting systems, Manchester City or United’s future generations of youngsters are as likely to be sourced from Sao Paolo as they are from Salford.
If England are to produce the players required to compete at the very highest level, development needs to start at a younger age, giving our young players the best possible chance to succeed in the ever more competitive and ever more multinational academies. If the FA fail to address this, future England managers may find the cupboards completely bare.