As the Three Lions crashed out of the 2010 World Cup on South African soil in an all too familiar sight, many believed England’s so called ‘Golden Generation’ was over. Despite the controversy of Frank Lampard’s infamous disallowed goal the truth was that the team simply wasn’t good enough. Since then the likes of John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Jamie Carragher have called time on their careers and the heart of the nation’s defence hasn’t looked the same since.
Whether it be Terry’s warrior like blocks and tackles, Rio’s slick passing and composure, or Carragher’s intelligent reading of the game and sheer passion, a nation built upon iconic defenders has hit a slump. The likes of Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka have tried their best to paper over the cracks with the former often doing an admirable job, however, something’s missing. There’s no Bobby Moore, no Des Walker, no Tony Adams.
Part of the reason for this dearth of courageous, no-nonsense, almost brutish centre backs is due to the games evolution. The likes of Barcelona have paved the way for a new era where it’s not enough for a defender to just defend. This has been met by media backlash on English shores and for years we would still see Champions League matches where the likes of Terry would organise his 10-man defence as his counterpart Pique carried the ball over the halfway line.
Attitudes in recent times seem to be changing, however, there’s still a clear divide. Some usher in the new era of John Stones and his riskful passes whilst others dismiss it, calling for a safety first approach. Speaking of Stones, he is currently one of seven English centre-halves under the age of 25 that play regular Premier League football. So what does the future heart of England’s defence look like?
Much to the begrudgement of some, it appears that John Stones is firmly part of England manager Gareth Southgate’s plans moving forward. An ex-central defender himself, Southgate has sought to create a new ‘English DNA’. The idea being to move away from the physical, full-throttle game deployed generation after next and to a more continental game model. Love him or loathe him, Stones epitomises this strategy and the only real question seems to be who will partner the 22-year-old?
Of the aforementioned six others who could be the answer, only two have senior international pedigree thus far. Phil Jones was heralded as potentially the ‘greatest ever Manchester United player’ by the legendary Sir Alex Fergusson back in 2013 but seems to have lost his way a bit since. Defensive errors, injuries and long spells in the reserves have plagued Jones’ seasons throughout Moyes’ and van Gaal’s reigns at the club and the defender’s career looked over before it had truly begun.
This season has seen a reinvigorated Jones perform admirably under Mourinho as he strived to get his career back on track. Unfortunately, another cruel injury has hampered his progress but things once again are looking promising for the Blackburn academy product. Still only 24-years of age, Jones has every chance of getting back to the defender his early career promised him to be.
The other individual is Middlesbrough loanee Calum Chambers. Again put on a pedestal by the Gunners faithful following his transfer from Southampton, Chambers struggled to deal with the new-found pressure. Now at the Riverside and finding his feet again, there is hope that Chambers can add to his three England caps. The worry comes from Arsenal’s track record with indigenous talent. Kieran Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlin can all vouch for how hard it is to hold down a regular starting birth at the Emirates so it may be the case that a permanent move away is the youngster best bet to aid his career development.
Two of the remaining four have been called up by their nation but are yet to see the field of play. Michael Keane and Ben Gibson are currently plying their trade for Burnley and Middlesbrough respectively and formed a decent partnership for the under-21 national side over the past couple of years. Of the two it’s been Keane that has shone the brightest in Sean Dyche’s backline this season and seems destined for a bigger move sooner rather than later.
The remaining duo come in the form of Harry Maguire and Alfie Mawson. Both 23-years of age, it’s safe to say a lot is expected. Maguire moved to Hull from Sheffield United and Mawson followed Stones’ footsteps in leaving Barnsley and now plays for Swansea. Despite a rough start to the campaign both have enjoyed new leases of life under new management and look the real deal.
With regards to fitting England’s new found image, Chambers, Gibson and Mawson would be the three who jump out as more natural ball-playing centre-halves. That’s not to say there’s not a place in the squad for the likes of Jones, Keane and Maguire but as England look to embark on yet another project, it seems the former trio have the upper hand.
Should Chambers refuse to leave Arsenal and fail to cement his place at his parent club, you’d imagine Southgate will turn to Gibson or Mawson. Both players must remain focused and probably move to bigger clubs in the future in order to cement that role with Phil Jones’ career dip acting as a timely reminder of how quickly one can fall from grace.
In truth, no-one can say for definite who will lead England’s backline in 5 years’ time and others such as Southampton’s Jack Stephens, Arsenal’s Rob Holding or someone from the lower echelons of the football pyramid may well emerge in the meantime. What we do know is that Stones is leading the chasing pack with Gibson and Mawson surely firmly in Southgate’s thoughts.