Midfield muddle: Can England's young guns kick out old guard of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry and Michael Carrick?
Roy Hodgson will be tempted to experiment in the Three Lion's World Cup qualifier next month but the tried-and-trusted are refusing to give up their places easily
There are just 21 days until England play their first 2014 World Cup qualifier against Moldova in Chisinau, a game that will set the tone for their season. Lose it, or even draw, and four days later at Wembley in their second qualifier against Ukraine they will find themselves already chasing their tails, under pressure from the fans and with anxiety creeping in.
Put simply, it is not the kind of game in which a manager can afford to mess around. The atmosphere at the Zimbru Stadium will be the usual mix of excitement and hostility which England so often encounter in qualification games, and Moldova's players will have been looking forward to it for a long time. They might only be ranked 137th in the world, but England have experienced enough nasty surprises in recent years against lower-ranked nations – Montenegro, Macedonia, Northern Ireland – not to take anything for granted.
In short, if Hodgson is planning a revolution ahead of the 2014 World Cup, his instincts will tell him that Moldova will not be the place to start. In September he will undoubtedly rely on the old guard that have pulled England through so many qualification campaigns, bar Steve McClaren's Euro 2008 misadventure.
There is a generational logjam at the heart of the England team, and nowhere more so than in midfield. There is a new group of players who have worked their way through the Under-21s – Tom Cleverley, Jack Rodwell, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Johnson and Jordan Henderson – and now expect a tilt at the senior team. The best of the crop, Jack Wilshere, is interminably injured. Tom Huddlestone is fit again after missing most of last season with an ankle injury but he does not look like he is in Andre Villas-Boas's plans at Tottenham. Yet these players – Wilshere aside, if and when he is fit – find themselves blocked by an older group whose careers show little sign of tailing off.
Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry and Michael Carrick are the kind of individuals whom Hodgson will feel comfortable naming in his side come 7 September in Moldova. Scott Parker too, were he fit. Why? Because they have steered the England team through awkward games before. Been there, done that, and unlikely to be flustered by a team of unknowns who kick them for 90 minutes and then beg to swap shirts at the end.
But what of Brazil in two years' time? Lampard will turn 36 in June 2014; Gerrard will be 34 by then; Barry and Parker will be 33 while Carrick turns 34 in July that year. That does not necessarily preclude any one of them from playing, but pick any more than two and the midfield looks old. Yet if they are the key players in qualification, it makes them difficult to leave out.
This being international football, Hodgson can expect injuries and club form to take some decisions out of his hands. If, for example, Lampard leaves Chelsea for MLS or China at the end of this season, that will bring a close to his England career. Speaking at the Wankdorf Stadium late on Wednesday night, Hodgson was most enthused by the prospect of picking Carrick again following his composed performance in the 2-1 win over Italy.
Hodgson conceded that he and Stuart Pearce had been told by Carrick's agent, David Geiss, before Euro 2012 that the player did not want to be considered. Having read the interview he gave on Manchester United's pre-season tour in which Carrick said he still wanted to play, Gary Neville was asked to call his former team-mate to establish the truth before Hodgson became involved. "I spoke to him personally and he was at great lengths to point out there were no conditions on him coming back," Hodgson said. "He just said if he felt he was part of it, he was more than happy to be a part of the team. That was music to my ears and [against Italy] he has more than justified it."
The other problem facing the generation who are waiting for their turn is that by no means all of them – Cleverley, Rodwell, Johnson and Henderson in particular – are guaranteed a place in their club sides. With Fabio Capello's England, a player who was not selected for his club was, with the occasional exception, not considered but Hodgson has indicated that the nature of the Premier League means that has to change.
"It has to be a concern for the players, because they will realise that their chances of playing for England increase when they are playing regularly for their clubs. If those players were not getting in their teams it would concern me, but I have to have the courage to see beyond that and pick a player who is not getting in his team."
If Hodgson is to transform this team then he needs the young players to put pressure on their more senior team-mates at club level: that means Rodwell with Barry at City, Cleverley with Carrick at United and Henderson with Gerrard at Liverpool, all of which remain rather distant prospects.
It was notable that even Ryan Bertrand's England debut as a substitute on Wednesday was greeted with a tweet from Ashley Cole that he, Cole, needed to watch out as he "didn't want to sit on the bench". It was light-hearted but many a true word said in jest and all that. The instinct of Cole's generation, who have amassed sackfuls of England caps, is that they are not going to give up their places easily.
Both Hodgson's most recent predecessors, McClaren and Capello, tried to usher in significant change but, by and large, both reverted to the kind of players whom Sven Goran Eriksson had picked before them. It is difficult to take risks when every qualifier is so crucial to the England manager. There could hardly be a more telling illustration of the slow speed of change that the player who emerged to establish himself in Wednesday's friendly was a 31-year-old who made his England debut more than 11 years ago.
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Composed in front of the back four, he gave England's midfield a different look to the more high-tempo, scurrying approach of Scott Parker.
Now England's youngest-ever goalkeeper, he looked the part in the way that others have not. He has taken the first step to being England's second choice behind Joe Hart and beyond that, who knows?
Occupied the position taken by Wayne Rooney at Euro 2012, just behind the main striker. Not his best position but quick feet and willingness to take the ball impressed.
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Will be pleased to have made his debut but the fact that Butland started the match suggests that the 19-year-old is ahead of Ruddy in the pecking order. Can the Norwich goalkeeper face the prospect of being called up for squads as the No 3 choice?
By his standards he had an innocuous Euro 2012 and looked out of sorts again on Wednesday night. Struggled to get into positions where he could commit the full-back
Even Hodgson admitted that the Liverpool striker was lacking match sharpness. Plenty of willing but the ball rarely stuck when it was played into him.
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