We all remember a time when England were blessed with inspirational leaders in defence who were considered the best in their respective positions. Those who saw Bobby Moore in his prime would tell you that he personified the thou-shalt-not-pass ethos and had an air of authority that made him stand out as a leader amongst men. Being hailed by Pele as the greatest defender he ever faced after Brazil faced England at the 1970 World Cup epitomised just how highly Moore was rated by his peers – he set the standard for future generations of centre-backs to aspire to and lead by example from the back.
Terry Butcher, John Terry and Tony Adams are among those who have followed in Moore’s footsteps and being part of a strong defensive partnership that gave England the platform to express themselves further up the pitch. You could argue that the last time the Three Lions had two stand-out leaders that were masters in the art of defending and preferred old school methods over trying to overplay in the wrong areas was when Terry lined up alongside Rio Ferdinand.
Training methods and the way football is played may have changed over the years, but for England to have no real standout centre-backs in the present day when it was one of numerous things that gave the team an identity is both a shame and a concern. The recent World Cup qualifying match in Slovenia was a case in point; Gary Cahill and John Stones may be in the early stages of developing a partnership, but not only do neither stand out as commanding leaders who could rally the troops and pull England out of the mire, the manner in which Slovenia carved out opportunities illustrated a distinct lack of communication. Being comprehensive favourites with Betway in the latest football odds to top our qualifying group which does not carry a great deal of difficulty counts for little when England do not have the quality at the back to compete against the very best in major tournaments.
Cahill is probably the only centre-back in Gareth Southgate’s first England squad that has the experience and nous to control the back four, but he has not taken up the mantle left behind by his Chelsea team-mate Terry who was always reliable for his country. The other options have endured a difficult few days; Chris Smalling had a nightmare at Stamford Bridge where he was arguably culpable for three of Chelsea’s four goals, while John Stones has yet to integrate the basic art of defending into his game and was badly at fault for his no-look back-pass that allowed Nathan Redmond to score for Southampton. Pep Guardiola certainly sees a future captain and leader in Stones, but while Sergio Aguero should be the top goal scorer in the Premier League this season due to their wonderful attacking play, Manchester City have work to do at the back if they are to fulfil their tag as title favourites with Betway. Stones certainly divides opinion amongst fans, as while some would argue that he should be encouraged to be confident on the ball and play from the back as part of the modern way of thinking, others believe that his confidence is misplaced on occasions when he should simply clear his lines instead of trying to over-play and make costly mistakes as a result.
It would be fair to say that England have stood still since the beginning of the 21st Century and seen several developing and emerging countries overtake them in the quality stakes. Belgium are a prime example of a country that have turned their attentions to developing technically gifted players and are currently reaping the rewards as a result, while Germany’s complete transformation of youth academies and coaching across the country had enabled them to win major tournaments. Joachim Low has an embarrassment of riches to choose from in every department via a never-ending conveyor belt of talent, while England continue to look over their shoulders and wonder when the next generation of players will come through and succeed.
This is particularly concerning from a defensive perspective as there is a distinct dearth of young English centre-backs playing regular first-team football in the Premier League; aside from Stones and Eric Dier (he is often utilised as a holding midfielder by club and country), there is nobody else that fans can hang their hat on as being the answer to England’s defensive deficiencies. This, combined with the recent nightmare endured by Smalling and Stones, leaves us to question whether England will ever establish a defensive backbone built upon top quality players that fans could place their trust and faith in to lead the country to glory.