Cast your mind back a decade to the 2006 World Cup: those hallowed days when Peter Crouch was entertaining the nation with his robot dance, and when a fresh-faced Wayne Rooney still had a full head of his own hair.
England’s centre-backs for that tournament? Chelsea captain John Terry, Manchester United stalwart Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, fresh from a Champions League final in which he headed in the opener, and Jamie Carragher, who himself won the CL title a year prior. (That’s without even mentioning the supremely gifted Ledley King, or Real Madrid’s Jonathan Woodgate, both of whom were left at home).
It was truly an embarrassment of riches for then-manager Sven Goran Eriksson, who, if necessary, could have happily swapped out his two first choice picks without fearing a significant drop in quality. The Three Lions duly went through the tournament with a stellar defensive record, knocked out only on penalties after a goalless quarter final draw with Portugal (but let’s not go there).
Fast forward a decade, and England’s centre-back options are looking a little more threadbare.
Manchester United duo Chris Smalling and Phil Jones were once tipped to be decade-long mainstays for club and country, but both are now in their early 20s, and yet to live up to the hype of five years ago.
Chris Smalling following up some decent defending by dribbling straight into another German. That's what playing with Phil Jones does to you
— UNILAD Football (@UNILADFooty) March 22, 2017
£40m man John Stones, meanwhile, continues to make calamitous mistakes for City, and the likes of Michael Keane of Burnley and Middlesbrough’s Ben Gibson – although showing plenty of promise for relegation-battling teams – have plenty to prove at the top level.
Even the elder statesman of the group Gary Cahill, shining this season in Conte’s rock solid back three, is by no means an elite level centre-back (and, at 31, probably only has one major tournament left in him).
Just how on earth has it come to this?
Firstly, shocking though it is for a nation of its size, England is essentially missing a generation of footballers. The fabled mid-2000s group that comprised of Lampard, Gerrard and Cole (as well as those aforementioned centre-halves) all hit their twilight years at the same time. Instead of experienced players in their mid 20s, the Three Lions turned to youngsters, because pickings from the generation just below – Hart and Rooney aside – were pretty slim. England had the youngest team at the Euros not because of the quality of their youth players, but because of the absence of anyone better.
To compound the matter, budding footballers are no longer so inclined to play at the back in an era when the annual Ballon d’Or list is flooded with number 10s and tempo-setting midfielders. That doesn’t matter so much when it comes to full-backs, because – as Jamie Carragher once observed – there is no shortage of “failed wingers” to plug the gaps, but centre-back is a much more specialised position.
That brings us onto perhaps the most important point: central defence is becoming an increasingly more difficult role to play in the modern game, what with false nines and Trequartistas and Geggenpressing. In some ways, England are (for once) following the global trend by failing to churn out top class centre-backs: it’s difficult to come up with a reputable top 10 list – and even more difficult for clubs to find viable transfer options. Just ask City.