Much has been written about the England football team's so-called "Golden Generation" of Beckham, Lampard, Gerrard, Ashley Cole, Joe Cole, Terry, Rooney, and the like, and when the team was knocked out of the Euro 2008 championships there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. "We've lost our one best chance," the refrain goes, "and there are no decent players coming through the ranks!" This is absolutely nonsense, and I can give you at least 14 examples of why Fabio Capello was very smart to take the England management job.
The time of out-and-out goalscorers is over. Michael Owen is a fantastic goalscorer but he's not the striker England needs anymore (regardless of his injury problems). The team needs goalscoring options across the front line, and from midfield, and those options have to include more than headers from high balls across or waiting for a flick-on from a strike-partner. These players deliver on this need. Combine them with Rooney -- who is finally developing into a strike-force player rather than an out-and-out striker -- and you've got something very special.
Gabriel Agbonlahor is one of the most exciting forwards playing in the Premier League today. In his first season in the Aston Villa first team last year, he scored nine goals and made 37 starts. The 21 year-old has an amazing turn of pace, and can play as striker or on the right. He's been causing defenses everywhere all manner of problems this season, scoring seven goals in 21 games, and he's already played for the England U-21 team.
Ashley Young is a team-mate of Agbonlahor's at Villa, having been purchased by Martin O'Neill for (what I thought at the time was a ridiculous sum of) £8million last year. The 22 year-old is a full-back's nightmare, with cheeky twists and bags of pace, with a startling ability to place the ball exactly in the box where goalkeepers don't want it and where strikers dream about late at night. He's also played for the England U-21 side.
Chris Eagles is presently suffering from under-exposure in the far-too-talented Manchester United first team but, to be sure, he is a player to watch. He was once dubbed "the new David Beckham," and while I think that's a bit much he has a surplus of talent that will shine once he's given the right amount of Premiership experience. The question for Eagles is, will he get that chance when he's competing against Rooney, Tevez, Ronaldo, and Giggs?
Shaun Wright-Phillips had a torrid time when he first went to Chelsea but, in the latter part of Mourinho's reign and throughout Avram Grant's time, he has played a consistent role in getting behind defenses to give Drogba and co. the delivery and precision needed to break the back of the net every time. (For what it's worth: While Drogba is undoubtedly a phenomenal player, he relies heavily on his wingers and central midfielders for delivery of the ball. Without Wright-Phillips and Joe Cole, he wouldn't be half as successful as he is.)
Theo Walcott is the youngest player listed here, at 18 years old, and possibly the most exciting. Wright-Phillips and Lennon face stiff competition from Walcott who has slotted comfortably into Arsene Wenger's international-quality side. If Capello wants England to play attacking, ball-to-feet precision football (which I pray to God he does), he need look no further than Walcott for the requisite maturity, speed, and vigor. One criticism of Walcott is that he doesn't score that many goals; if Capello wants people to score from anywhere on the field, Walcott may cede his spot to Wright-Phillips.
In the Middle
The job of the midfield is simple: break up play and link up defense to attack. This requires a combination of ferocity and deft touch, a tricky balance to create. To do so, you need players with flair and strength -- players like Steven Gerrard who can power through opposition midfielders and spread the ball to forward players. Strength comes with age, so there may be a role for Gerrard in as much as four years from now. And if we want flair, we've got it in buckets...
David Bentley is one of the country's most-maligned players because he pulled out of the England U-21 squad last year, saying he was too tired to play. But to my mind this decision shows a maturity beyond his 23 years and, as his performances at Blackburn this season prove, he is truly someone who could fill David Beckham's boots -- and go a lot further. Like Beckham, Bentley is a dead-ball specialist and can put the ball exactly where his team-mates want it over incredible distances. But unlike Golden Balls, Bentley is unafraid to run at full-backs at pace, from any midfield position.
Michael Johnson has been a revelation in the Manchester City team this year. At 19 years old, he has linked well with more senior international players and is playing with a poise and maturity that is rarely seen anywhere in the world. He is a power-house of a central midfielder, able to control and interrupt play across the field. He also is clearly attack-minded, playing the ball to feet as a preference (unlike most English players). In many ways, he's a lot like Steven Gerrard but with less emphasis on frenetic attack and more on controlled skill.
Aaron Lennon is like a whirling dervish down the right. He beat out Shaun Wright-Phillips under Eriksson's management of England but has yet to be establish a consistent presence in the first-pick 11. Regardless, he has bags of creativity that scythes through defenses. His performances for Tottenham this season have been awe-inspiring, delivering the opportunities that Berbatov and Keane have capitalized on in almost every game.
At the Back
The old adage goes: You can score as many as you like but if you let more in, you'll still lose. While the stupidity of that statement drives me nuts, it also speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding about the game. The common belief is that an attacking side will always win. But as the Italians have demonstrated over the years, and the Brazilians have always understood, a side that can defend is often far more successful (if less exciting). And while England has the core of a rock-solid defense, more central-defense options would be welcome...
Leighton Baines is a left-back who, at Wigan, was massively impressive. His time at Everton has been patchy so far, with Joleon Lescott excelling in that role. He is a committed tackler who can overlap and cross the ball with confidence.
Joleon Lescott was formed as a centre-back but now plays primarily in the left-back position at Everton. His last England appearance, in the disastrous Croatia match at Wembley, was not indicative of his quality and hopes are high that he'll quickly acclimatize to the international stage. At 25 years old, he's approaching the defender's best age. With Leighton Baines coming up, too, England has two fantastic options at left-back.
Liam Ridgewell is, in my view, just coming into his best form. He bounced between Villa and Birmingham but is clearly getting more comfortable as a central defender. At 23 years old, he is just getting to the age when he can command his position with authority and, having faced some of the fiercest attacking forces in football, he will continue to gain the experience needed to perform consistently on the international stage.
"Goalkeeping crisis"? What crisis? The problem is one of selection, not supply. We've got at least three 'keepers who are younger and better than Paul Robinson and David James.
Joe Hart is only 20 years old but he's now playing regular first-team football for Manchester City. (Curious aside: Is Sven secretly breeding a new England team at the City Stadium?) Give him 4 years of consistent appearances and he'll be about as solid as 'keepers come.
Robert Green can be thanked for many of the points West Ham has won this season. He's saved multiple penalties but, more importantly, commanded United's defense with confidence. I'm not sure what Alan Curbishley has done to inspire Green to these performances but, whatever it is, he needs to keep doing it. Until Joe Hart and Scott Carson achieve more consistency, Green is head-and-shoulders above the rest -- including Paul Robinson, who is woeful at the moment.
Scott Carson had a nightmare England debut in goal against Croatia but, fundamentally, he cannot be blamed for the ignominious extent of the defeat. His performances for Aston Villa this season have been rock-solid. Personally, I'd prefer Robert Green in goal, partly because he's 5 years older but also because he's very much in-form and has been growing into form for the last few years.
And there's more... This is a very much abbreviated list of players. I could rave about Leroy Lita, Matt Derbyshire, Stewart Downing, James Milner, Anton Ferdinand, and several others. And these are just the younger players in the England set-up, and doesn't include established presences from Gerrard, Lampard, Barry, Rooney, Ashley Cole, Joe Cole, and everyone else -- many of whom will still be playing at their peak in four or more years. Capello has a surplus of options. So, who do you think should be his first starting 11?