Two friendly victories in the space of four days means England will finish the calendar year unbeaten. But next year, and Euro 2012, could prove to be much more challenging for the national team.
Fabio Capello will lead England into either Ukraine or Poland next summer, but his departure following the competition has already been formalised. However, the Italian will still be facing some big selection headaches in the build up to the tournament.
Wins against Spain and Sweden at Wembley saw the emergence of several new faces in England's colours, with Phil Jones and Jack Rodwell rightfully earning the plaudits for two impressive displays, and Kyle Walker winning Man of the Match against the Scandinavians following an equally assured performance.
Capello heaped praise upon his newfound “Golden Generation,” but history suggests he will have a tough time risking youth over experienced players.
Following the World Cup in 2010, disillusioned England fans were promised wholesale changes to a side which woefully underperformed.
In reality, aging regulars such as John Terry, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and Gareth Barry managed to reclaim their spots in the squad.
Even Emile Heskey, who retired after the competition, was invited to end his self-imposed exile and turn up for the national team in a qualifier with Montenegro, following a spate of injuries to other strikers.
While Heskey turned down the request, Capello again demonstrated his preference of turning to experience in times of need, favouring the much-maligned forward over calling up Andy Carroll—a target man like Heskey, but 11 years his junior.
Capello’s tendency to turn to experience has been criticised often, but with England’s youngsters playing such an important role in the recent wins, it will be difficult for him to ignore those players who look ready to break into the England setup.
Rio Ferdinand, who has struggled with injuries again this season, may find he has become the first casualty of the youth movement.
Phil Jagielka and Joleon Lescott looked to have tied down places in the squad following their exceptional showings against Spain, while Gary Cahill appears to have his spot nailed down too.
With Chris Smalling absent due to injury—but now arguably above Rio Ferdinand in their club’s pecking order—and Phil Jones’ preferred role at centre back, it looks like a long road back for the former captain, particularly when his predecessor/successor as captain, John Terry, is still on the scene.
Terry, meanwhile, looked untroubled by neither the Swedish front line nor the furor surrounding his alleged racist comments to Rio’s brother, Anton. But as the media speculates wildly about his future as captain, few openly recognise that Terry should no longer be considered a regular in the England side.
Terry, despite his on-field leadership abilities, struggles against quick opponents. He is prone lapses in judgment, and his recent club performances have hardly been inspiring.
It is surprisingly easy to argue that Terry is no longer one of the top four English centre-backs, and his place should by no means be guaranteed come next summer, although it is difficult to imagine a scenario where Capello overlooks his two-time captain.
Kyle Walker’s Man of the Match display against Sweden has earned him acclaim, and with Glen Johnson’s defensive frailties obvious, Walker could find himself starting at Euro 2012 if his good form continues at the club level.
Meanwhile, Micah Richards, continues to be inexplicably overlooked. Despite his outstanding displays at right-back for league leaders Manchester City, Capello has ignored him, yet most fans will agree that he should be ahead of Johnson in the pecking order.
On the wings, the manager has a vast array of youth. In attack, Danny Welbeck impressed in his cameo against Spain, and Daniel Sturridge made his debut last night. Wayne Rooney remains, rightfully, in the plans, despite being suspended for at least some of next summer’s tournament.
But the real threat to the “Old Guard” should come from Capello’s new midfield combination.
The experienced core of the team—Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry and Steven Gerrard, who have been regulars in England’s recent lineups—is under the greatest pressure.
Jack Wilshere will be back in the starting lineup when he is fit, and Jack Rodwell and Phil Jones both staked claims to a place in the squad.
In addition to these three youngsters, Tom Cleverley’s sparkling form at Manchester United, although recently curtailed by injury, should be enough to force himself into the discussion for a place at the European Championships.
Capello would be unwise to disregard any of these young talents, and with Wilshere almost certain to go to the competition if fit, and Jones’ versatility likely to earn him a spot, it is worth questioning the futures of the older generation of players.
At this moment, Scott Parker is the only central midfielder over the age of 30 whose place should be a certainty. Outstanding against Spain, Parker has impressed for England consistently, and offers the grit and determination that England fans have been so desperate for.
Parker’s established role for England will again heap more pressure on Barry, Gerrard and Lampard.
The latter, while impressive against Spain, has done little else of note in recent games for England. His form at international level has been inconsistent for the past five years, and he had been a regular on the substitutes’ bench before Steven Gerrard’s injury.
His experience is valuable, but the goalscoring prowess he demonstrates so regularly for Chelsea is often lacking for his country. Lampard’s time in an England shirt may come to an end after Euro 2012, but there is a case to be made that he, and others, could be omitted from the competition altogether.
With the exception of a solid hour against Spain, he has seldom played well at this level recently, scoring just two goals in England’s qualifying campaign; one from the penalty spot against Switzerland—before he was substituted at half time following a disappointing display.
Lampard has been unable to nail down a regular spot in Capello’s team. While it is difficult to overlook a player with an outstanding scoring rate at club level, Lampard has never seemed to fit into the England midfield since being paired with Steven Gerrard.
Despite multiple attempts to form a partnership with the two world-class midfields, the results have only ever been disappointing.
Similarly to Lampard, Gerrard has struggled to replicate his club form for his country. Despite weighing in with some vital goals for England, recent injuries could prevent Gerrard from finding his best form before next summer.
Injuries have caused the Liverpool captain to miss substantial periods of time on the field recently. His return from a long-term groin injury was short-lived, after he suffered from an infected ankle, and there is no clear timetable for his return at the moment.
While he will almost certainly heal in time for Euro 2012, it is worth questioning whether a 31-year-old, who has been injured for so long, can ever return to the form which earned him a reputation as one of his generation's most talented midfielders.
James Milner has been deployed in Gerrard’s role for England, and Ashley Young has proved he can play off the striker for England. With these options in mind, and Wilshere, Jones, Parker and Rodwell all likely to compete for a place in the squad, can Capello really select Gerrard unless he fully recovers from his injuries and rediscovers his form at club level by the end of the season?
Gareth Barry, who surprisingly survived the post-World Cup cull despite his disappointing campaign, is a capable performer against lesser opposition, but struggles against top quality opponents.
At Euro 2012, there is a good argument for replacing Barry, who struggles to handle the pace of world class opponents—something Germany exploited ruthlessly in South Africa.
With his regular starting spot taken by Scott Parker, who was superb against Spain, can England justify taking another holding midfielder over the age of 30 to a competition which will likely be his last?
Phil Jones proved he can also fill the holding midfield role competently, and Jack Rodwell offered much more of an attacking threat than Barry has for the majority of his England career; although it is ironic that Barry’s header led to England’s only goal last night.
However, it is difficult to ever remember a time when Barry carved out goal-scoring opportunities for himself at the same frequency as the impressive Rodwell last night, while Jones also has the potential to burst forward and cause problems for opponents.
With Rodwell, Jones and Wilshere all offering more of a threat going forward, Barry’s days are numbered, thanks to versatility and youth.
Capello’s new generation of players have proven they are capable of stepping up to the mark for their country next summer, and the days of England’s so-called talismanic figures ensured a starting place are a thing of the past.
However, it remains to be seen whether Capello will show the ruthlessness required to overlook an experienced figure in the squad in favour of youth.
Germany proved that this approach can pay off at the 2010 World Cup, but England have so far been unwilling to take the same steps.
There is no guarantee that switching from experience to youth will offer the same rewards as it did for the Germans, but the promising performances on display against Spain and Sweden suggest England could be ready for it.
England’s last “Golden Generation” is commonly criticised for its disappointing performances on the grandest of footballing stages. Is there really any reason to suggest that there will be a different outcome for Euro 2012?
This is the big question for Capello.
Does he gamble on youth and reap the rewards, or does he continue with the big name players who have previously underperformed and simply hope that they perform better this time?
England’s fate is in his hands for one final year, and, as always, it is expectant.
Fabio Capello has always favoured experience, but with fans and the media witnessing firsthand the promise that England’s youth offers, it would take a very brave man not to change his ways.