FIFA World Cup 2010: Is England's Future Really That Bleak?
It was supposed to be so different. For the first time in a long while, England entered the World Cup following a near flawless qualifying campaign, with the so-called 'golden generation' of players at their peaks and playing with confidence under a manager the nation believed in.
And so when England failed to reach the quarter finals, the stage that had become the minimum expectation of the fans and media, the inquest began. Had Fabio Capello lost the players? Was his rigid 4-4-2 formation predictable and outdated? Did England possess players with the technical skill to even attempt a change to a more fluid system?
In the doom and gloom that surrounded England's exit, the answers to the above questions seemed to be yes, yes and no. But the FA's decision to stick with Capello through the upcoming European Championship's was a sensible one and Capello's vow "to introduce new players to give the team new energy" is, in my opinion, a reason for optimism. But what players really represent the future of the England team?
Some would have taken Manchester City's exciting left winger to South Africa. Capello opted not to, a decision he may, with hindsight, regret. Ashley Cole was one of England's best players at the World Cup but it wasn't thanks to the support he received; England basically ignored their left flank, instead choosing to allow Steven Gerrard to roam inside, which succeeded in causing only more confusion in the England midfield.
Johnson's advantage over England's good-to-average right-sided options is that he brings genuine quality and a final ball to go with his pace and unpredictable running. Time and time again Aaron Lennon let himself down with a poor cross after a good burst of pace, while James Milner provided dangerous deliveries but his lack of flair saw him struggle to consistently get past his full-back.
If we're modelling England on the hugely impressive Germany, Johnson fits into Lukas Podolski's left wing position nicely.
Owen Hargreaves was perhaps unnecessary against weaker opposition during qualification but in South Africa it became apparent how much of a loss he was. Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan gave us a warning of the threat of players playing between the England defence and midfield, and Mesut Ozil took advantage of our failure to learn from it, running unchallenged at the less than pacy John Terry and Matthew Upson and causing all sorts of problems with no holding midfielder making his life a little more difficult.
Jack Rodwell is the future of this position. Originally a centre-back, Rodwell has evolved into a midfielder capable of playing as close to the strikers as the back four. In my view he will settle down as a more defensively minded midfielder, but his ability to play further forward shows Rodwell does not lack skill or technique.
Like Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger, Rodwell can pass, shoot and dribble as well as protect the back four from the Ozils, Sneijders and Messis that have lit up this tournament. Once Rodwell breaks into the England team, I don't envisage he'll leave it for a long while.
Joe Hart has perhaps become something of a flavour of the month in England, with plenty calling for the inexperienced goalkeeper to start the World Cup ahead of the more seasoned David James, but it is difficult to argue with the view that Hart will become England's number one in the future.
Fresh off the season of his career so far with Birmingham City, the upcoming campaign will be a key one for Hart; he must be playing week in, week out to reinforce his merit as an international player and that may mean a move away from Manchester City, where Shay Given holds the starting spot.
Where he goes is another question. Manchester United might be interested, having sold Ben Foster to Birmingham, but Edwin van der Sar shows no sign of ageing. Arsenal have never replaced David Seaman but have been more closely linked to Mark Schwarzer. If Schwarzer leaves Fulham, that opens up the starting job at a club where the spotlight would not shine quite as brightly on Hart, which might be a benefit to the 23-year old's fledgling career.
After his explosion on to the scene in the Carling Cup for Arsenal, the hype around Jack Wilshere has quietened down somewhat and his loan move to Bolton Wanderers was relatively low-key. One cannot help but think that this is something orchestrated by Arsene Wenger, and Wilshere couldn't be in better hands than those that nurtured the likes of Cesc Fabregas and, to be more England specific, Ashley Cole.
Wilshere is blessed with skill levels very few English players possess; in a country where players are taught blood, sweat and tears before ball control he is an anomaly. He could be the playmaker that England fans long for.
The talent of Adam Johnson and Wilshere in tandem would be a refreshing change to the industrious but ineffective punch of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, but he still has a long way to go. Wilshere must first break into the Arsenal side, which could happen next season, especially if Fabregas moves back to Barcelona. I don't think there is any doubt that in Fabio Capello's ideal world, Wilshere will be on the plane to Poland/Ukraine 2012.
The call-up of Jamie Carragher for the World Cup illustrated just how thin England are at the back past Rio Ferdinand and John Terry, and the age of the latter two (as well as Ferdinand's injury problems) has got to be something of a worry for Fabio Capello and England fans in the long term.
Unfortunately, there are no sure-fire replacements waiting in the wings. Michael Mancienne, Micah Richards and most recently Chris Smalling have shown good signs in the under-21s, but none are ready for the step up to the senior team quite yet.
However, in a market Sir Alex Ferguson has repeatedly labelled poor value, he splashed out a reported £8-10m on a defender who has played very little Premier League football. Arsenal were reportedly also in that race, and that suggests the emergence of a player with the raw materials of a top defender.
What's happened to Theo? Once labelled the most exciting young English talent bar Wayne Rooney, Walcott has struggled for consistency with both Arsenal and England. After a devastating hat-trick against Croatia in qualification, Fabio Capello was reportedly so unimpressed with Walcott's performances in the run-up to the tournament that he left the young prodigy out of his squad entirely.
His development has undoubtedly stalled but it's hard to see Walcott not having an important place in the England team in the future; England must learn to play a faster and more slick counter-attacking style and a more polished Walcott fits that description perfectly.
I won't make excuses, he was arguably our poorest player at the World Cup, and certainly our most underwhelming. But Wayne Rooney is still just 24 years old.
His time will come.