Thirty-two, thirty-three, thirty-four, thirty-five. No, I’m not counting the number of people who are interested in the result of England’s next match. Rather, the respective ages that Michael Carrick, Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard will be by the time of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Yet England’s hopes of qualifying for the tournament depend upon these players, a fact that, together with the lack of upward pressure from the U-21 squad, could spell trouble for Roy Hodgson and England.
Of course Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and even Lampard himself have demonstrated this season that a footballer’s career need not end at thirty. But even without the inclusion of Rio Ferdinand and John Terry, the spine of England’s squad is undoubtedly ageing.
Jermain Defoe, Joelon Lescott, Phil Jagielka, Leon Osman and Scott Parker will join Messrs Carrick, Cole, Gerrard and Lampard in the ‘over-thirty club’ by this time next year, while Glen Johnson, Wayne Rooney and Leighton Baines will be twenty nine. Even James Milner, who still plays with the energy of a nineteen year old, will be twenty eight.
While this means that Roy Hodgson has a welcome pool of experience to draw upon, it does present a challenge when we look beyond the short term, and to who will be donning the three lions in 2014, 2016 and beyond.
Since becoming boss, Hodgson has sought to push through a new generation into the England front line. Danny Welbeck, Andy Carroll, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jordan Henderson all travelled to the European Championships in 2012, meaning England boasted the third lowest average age in the entire tournament.
But injuries, deteriorating form, or poor selection records at club level mean that Hodgson remains absolutely reliant on a core group of players who will be in the twilight of their career come Brazil in 2014. In the recent World Cup Qualifier against Montenegro, the average age of the England starting xi was twenty-eight and a half, significantly older than Germany in their qualifier vs Sweden (twenty-seven, despite the inclusion of thirty-five year old Miroslav Klose) and France in their match vs Spain (also twenty-seven).
This is a serious conundrum for Hodgson. The harsh truth of the matter is that England’s chances of qualification depend upon the tried and tested players of the last decade. But will a thirty-four year old Gerrard really be capable of dominating the midfield in the sweltering Brazilian heat? It seems unlikely. Yet with Jack Wilshere beset by injuries and players like Rodwell and Cleverley failing to consistently impress in the middle of the park at club level, what option does Hodgson have but to persist with Carrick, Parker and Lampard as back-ups?
Perhaps most worryingly of all for Hodgson and England fans looking to the long term, there is a dearth of talent capable of pushing through from the U-21 squad. Yes, players like Raheem Sterling, Wilifred Zaha and Nathaniel Chalobah could be stars of the future, but the fact is only a handful of the current U-21 squad are plying their trade regularly in the Premier League, and fewer still start regularly for those clubs. This problem seems to be most acute up-front, with the entire U-21 squad contributing just nine Premier League goals this season – less than 1% of the total scored in the division.
All of which helps explain the familiarity of so many of the squads Hodgson has selected. In the future, all eyes will be on Daniel Sturridge, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Phil Jones to provide some reassurance that we aren’t dependent on the old guard, and that the future for England is bright. With Brazil 2014 fast approaching, it is vital that each takes the opportunity to play their way into Hodgson’s first xi.