The night before Deloitte's annual report revealed another crop of mind-boggling financial figures about English football last Thursday, the national team set what must have been two more records: 18 substitutes on duty at Wembley, including a goalkeeper from Peterborough United, whose late inclusion took the number of players called up to the senior squad this season past the half-century.
Like his predecessor Steve McClaren, who summoned more than 40 last season and used 38, Fabio Capello is certainly doing his bit for the kit manufacturers. But after three games, and with a shadow squad wrapping up the campaign in Port of Spain late tonight, is the new man any closer to sorting the Wheater from the chaff, and his Beckham from his Bentley?
It was notable that ahead of Wednesday's regulation 2-0 victory over the United States, Capello said: "The first XI I will choose is in this moment the best players." His strongest team, in other words, which must have come as an unwelcome shock to Gareth Barry and Joe Cole, neither of whom were in it.
Barry, finding himself behind Owen Hargreaves and Frank Lampard in the pecking order of central midfielders, did what good players do and set about changing the manager's mind when he was introduced as a half-time substitute for the ineffectual Lampard. His pass for Steven Gerrard's goal confirmed what Aston Villa fans have long known, that he can be much more than a defensive midfielder who simply breaks up play and passes to someone supposedly more gifted.
Cole, given much less time (11 minutes) to make an impression, albeit in the role he likes best, just behind the front line, failed to do himself justice and has two unconvincing performances to his name in Capello's three matches. He must be worried that Gerrard, reluctant as he is to start out on the left, has made the position his own, freeing up a central role now that the new manager has decided to use only four midfielders and not five.
An irony of McClaren's brief reign was that, though deprived of key players in defence and attack (Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney all missed the crucial European Championship game in which defeat by Croatia cost England a place at the finals), he regularly had an embarrassment of riches in the middle of the pitch. His big decision for the other key game, away to Russia, was to leave out Lampard, playing Gerrard (who was poor on the day) and Barry together, and it may now be that the Chelsea man is the loser again, especially in games like the one away to Croatia in September when a slightly more defensive approach is required. Hargreaves and Barry would be a solid pairing then, with Gerrard starting on the left but by no means required to hug the touchline.
Capello's English lessons have presumably not taken in the Liverpool captain's autobiography, in which he writes: "I hated life on the left. No debate, guys. I'm best in the middle." Or perhaps he is well aware of those comments and inclined to say: "No debate, Steven. You play where I tell you." While Gerrard is fit, it seems Stewart Downing and Ashley Young, who both need a good game tonight, will be fighting for even a brief cameo.
And what of the right flank, another position in which the bright young things were supposed to see off the old guard? Briefly, but unconvincingly, they did. McClaren's first squad, back in August 2006, included Aaron Lennon, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Kieran Richardson but no David Beckham. None of that trio took his opportunities and the role has been occupied in Capello's matches so far only by Beckham and David Bentley.
Beckham it was who started on Wednesday in that "first XI... the best players" and, to be fair, he was the more effective of the two. "I'm 33 now, but as long as I look after myself, there's no reason I can't go on for a few more years," he declared later. "Fitness-wise, I feel great."
Unfortunately, he is now holding back the development of the other contenders. There was a short-term case for McClaren's U-turn as the European Championship campaign turned sticky, proven in the deciding game when Beckham came on at half-time for a feeble Wright-Phillips and brilliantly set up Peter Crouch's equalising goal before Croatia inflicted their devastating final blow. Had that been Beckham's 100th appearance, it would have been the perfect time to bring the curtain down again after the unexpected encore. The evidence to date is that Bentley, for all his self-confidence, does better when starting a game (Capello's first, against Switzerland) than when trying too hard to prove himself as a substitute, as on four other occasions.
Not that he is the only candidate: Arsenal's Theo Walcott and Villa's Gabriel Agbonlahor could both fill the spot, and either would inject the pace that is lacking down both flanks when Beckham and Gerrard play there.
They need games and so it is time for Capello – who, like McClaren, cast Beckham aside at Real Madrid, only to recall him – to live up to his image as a hard man and make the hard choice.Reuse content