Rio Ferdinand’s recall to the England national team this week made sense, in football terms. The Manchester United defender has been in good form, good physical shape and has demonstrated an ability to play back-to-back games.
His inability to do so previously was a perfectly valid omission from England’s Euro 2012 squad – John Terry or no John Terry, a player must get his club house in order before he can be counted upon by his country. Ledley King’s 2010 World Cup nightmare and subsequent retirement is as good an example as anyone needs.
While Roy Hodgson was right to consider Ferdinand for his latest squad – and while the player has apparently acted with dignity and professionalism in withdrawing from the World Cup qualifiers against San Marino and Montenegro – there can now be no doubt that the 81-times England defender should no longer be in the international picture.
Not because his withdrawal was in any way disrespectful or unpatriotic: Ferdinand has showed a great deal more dignity than Terry, who threw his toys out of the pram after his nauseating case with the FA and Anton.
No, Rio should be excluded from consideration because, as was the case at the Euros, England cannot count on him, for football reasons.
Rio will be close to 36 at the next international tournament, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. There is no point in planning for a player who may well have retired by that point, and certainly no motivation in basing England’s selection process around the management of his physical schedule.
It is testament to Rio’s love of playing for England that he was not and will not retire from national team duty, but England themselves should move on, as they did with Terry.
And it’s not like the English game has a particular shortage of talented centre-halves. Indeed, it is the one position where these isles are blessed with an abundance of natural talent, options aplenty plying their trade at the highest level.
As a result this blow should be seen as an opportunity to define what England’s long-term defensive partnership(s) should be.
So, with Terry and quite probably Ferdinand permanently out of the picture, what is England’s pecking order at the back?
Gary Cahill (Age 27: 14 caps, two goals)
Terry’s defensive partner at Chelsea, the former Aston Villa and Bolton defender has good technique and distribution, not to mention a fine line in volleyed goals. He is not the quickest though, and has a tendency to switch off on occasions, meaning his ball-playing ability – with both feet and head – is his strongest point. A natural replacement for Ferdinand in that sense.
England future: 7/10
Phil Jones (Age 21: Five caps, no goals)
Jones is arguably a more talented player than Rio at the same age. Tall, quick and immensely powerful, his physique is matched with a composure on the ball, particularly when bringing it forward. As a result he is often used as a right-back or in midfield, but he is a natural centre-back and has the tactical discipline to start from now. His only negative factor is an apparent injury proneness which could diminish his physical attributes.
England future: 9/10
Chris Smalling (Age 23: Four caps, no goals)
A relative latecomer to professional football, Smalling’s huge potential has – like Jones – been limited by his proneness to injury. At 23 he has plenty of time to mature into the fine ball-playing centre-back his physical and technical skills deserve, but at the moment he must stay fit and continue to progress, particularly regarding his concentration and positioning.
England future: 7/10
Phil Jagielka (Age 30: 16 caps, one goal)
The Everton stopper is a brilliant defender on the back foot. That is, he is – like Terry – not blessed with the greatest pace, but superb at putting his body on the line and timing the kinds of last-ditch challenges that England will need against top opposition. His lack of international experience for his age is testament to a succession of English managers being outright obsessed with Terry, and while he can still do a job for the next tournament at least, it may be wise to focus on developing partnerships between younger players. Still, he has been instrumental in shutting out Spain and Italy in famous friendly wins, and should be considered in squads at least.
England future: 6/10
Michael Dawson (Age 29: Four caps, no goals)
Dawson is akin to Jagielka in that his international career has been stalled by the existence of superior players with similar attributes, although in this case ball-playing defenders like Rio and Cahill have been ahead of him in the pecking order. Forced to withdraw from the latest squad through injury, and his England future is likely to be limited to cover.
England future: 5/10
Joleon Lescott (Age 30: 23 caps, one goal)
Lescott is being hampered by falling out of favour at club level, in part due to a slight drop in form but mostly on account of the revelation that is Matija Nastasic. Quick and good in the air, Lescott is a typical modern British centre-half, less comfortable on the ball than the likes of Cahill or Jones but quick, agile and brave. But a loss of confidence at City means he has fallen well behind in Hodgson’s view, and unless he moves club in the summer expect Lescott to be the recipient of late call-ups after injuries.
England future: 5/10
Steven Caulker (Age 21: One cap, one goal)
Tottenham Hotspur youngster Caulker appears to be the real deal, after impressing on loan at Swansea and then cementing a first-team place at a club challenging for a Champions League place. Tall, composed and good on the ball, he is probably the player most reminiscent of Rio although needs a few more seasons at the highest level before being a realistic consideration.
England future: 7/10
Ryan Shawcross (age 25: One cap, no goals)
Whenever a player like Terry or Ferdinand is called or dropped by England, the Stoke defender’s name is bandied around message boards and radio phone-ins from fans and pundits who rate his strength, aerial ability and physical presence. In theory the old-fashioned British stopper would fit the mould, but he is poor on the ball and his aggressive and dominant style would fall foul of European referees. There are more modern defensive options in England, better suited to the international game. Unless he moves to a top-four club – or Stoke qualify for the Champions League – we will not fully know how capable he is at adapting his game. Neither are hugely likely.
England future: 4/10
Reda Maher – follow on Twitter @Reda_Eurosport