Tom Cleverley might just be England’s future, just not quite yet

On a night that England struggled to a home draw with Ukraine, one glaring issue was Roy Hodgson’s readiness to use their inexperienced, and unready, youth.

A one off poor performance? The game that revealed England’s next ‘big thing’ to be just another ‘could’ve been’? Or, an example of an inherent English problem?? Tom Cleverley’s disappointing performance did not only highlight how undeveloped he looked, but also highlighted the disparaging distance between the future stars of England and the ‘Golden Generation’.

Firstly, it cannot be ignored how poorly Cleverley performed. Frequently touted as the answer to England’s midfield problems, Cleverley is in the unfortunate position of filling the void of ageing stars Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, once they retire. However, Cleverley looked markedly off the pace; his touch, tactical awareness and tepid approach were glaringly obvious, and until he was substituted, looked completely out of his depth. This was highlighted best by his three attempts at goal. The first two were clear goal scoring opportunities, but he lacked the poise and finesse expected, especially given his position as an attacking midfielder, someone who is needed to create and score goals.

Though unfortunate to hit the woodwork on his third attempt, Cleverley’s failure to convert any of these chances was worrying for someone playing in such a goal-necessary position. His performance was also highlighted by his lack of link-up play with Jermaine Defoe, as well as his failure to imprint himself on the game. Throughout the game he looked uncomfortable in his position, as well as almost in awe of the expectation upon him. Despite the fact that at 23 he is not as young as some players in the England squad, he is still a young and inexperienced international, with a huge amount of expectation upon him.

And herein lies the problem. England seem to have skipped a generation, cast off a lot of ‘maybe’s and ‘could’ve been’s, over relied on the Golden Generation and incorporated a significant number of younger players too early.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, only 19, has already played 7 games, and seems to be cementing a place as a starter for both club and country. When Theo Walcott and Daniel Sturridge were struck with illness, both 23, Raheem Sterling (17), Ryan Bertrand (23) and Adam Lallana (24) were called up. With a combined total of only 57 youth caps between them, and only Bertrand holding any senior caps (two), this presents the problem England – an inability to graduate young players through its youth system so that, come 23/24, they’re ready for senior international football.

Instead, many players are flung from U17/19/21 to the senior squad following a handful of good performances for their club. Sterling is a fine example of this; after Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers requested Sterling to stay in the U17’s, and not be promoted to the U21, Roy Hodgson called him up to the senior squad, forgoing both the U19 and U21 squads. Though Hodgson did say Sterling would not get any playing time, it does exemplify an English trend – one of bi-passing youth ranks, direct entry into the senior squad, placing large burdens of expectation upon their shoulders (though this is in part down to the media) and burning them out before they reach their physical and technical peak.

Not only does it potentially harm players as individuals, it also has the prospective of collectively damaging England’s chances of success at international competitions. One reason for Spain’s success is often put down to its players continually playing together at various stages of the national set up, thus creating a homogenous team that has a greater understanding of one another. England, on the other hand, are at complete odds with this; over relying on a handful of players that are still (just about) young enough to play for England (Gerrard, Lampard, Ashley Cole, John Terry et al) whilst cherry picking the best of the players just about old enough. They are then forcefully integrated into the senior squad, and expect too much of such young players. Although they may have a group of gifted individuals, England has continuously failed to assemble a national team for the past three tournaments.

Though a number of factors obviously affect how teams are brought together (injuries, manager, club commitments, personal issues), it is no secret that England fails to allow its potential future to evolve together. Where the likes of Casillas, Ramos, Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Alonso and Torres all have a history of playing together during their primitive years, England forces gifted individuals in to a team and expects greatness. This is baffling to say the least as international managers get less time with their squad, so the constant changing of players creates an extremely unsettled, and unbalanced, side.

So, who is really to blame? Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard have a combined total of 190 caps, yet the rest of England’s front 6 had a total of only 93 – the same number of caps Frank Lampard possesses individually – with Jermaine Defoe throwing 51 of those in to the pot.

So, is it really Tom Cleverley’s fault that he wasn’t ready to play for England?



Jordan Henderson has quickly fallen from starting midfielder to bit-time squad player, but why?

Ah, the fickle fortunes of a young, aspiring English footballer. One day you’re the talk of the town, with a cemented place for your club and a handful of international caps under your belt. The next day, you’re cast aside as a squad player, used to warm seats in the dugout and get game time only with the reserves.

Unfortunately, this is the predicament Liverpool and England’s Jordan Henderson finds himself in. Formally a regular in Kenny Dalglish’s starting XI, Henderson has found himself unwanted and unneeded under Brendan Rodgers. With the advent of a number of new midfielders, Henderson has dropped behind Joe Allen and Nuri Şahin, as well as Steven Gerrard, Lucas Leiva (when fit) and even Jonjo Shelvey. He has become so surplus to requirement that he was offered in a part-exchange deal to Fulham for Clint Dempsey. The young, up and coming future of England, valued at £16 million, was deemed worthy of a fee-less transfer in order to land another player.

But where did it all go wrong? Only a matter of months ago Henderson had cemented his place in Liverpool’s midfield, often rotating between the centre and the right, and rightly so. His high-tempo and controlled use of the ball was a definite asset. Especially in a midfield that lacked the dynamic defensive minded abilities Lucas Leiva brought before injury wrote his season off. He managed to fight off competition from Jay Spearing, Charlie Adam and Jonjo Shelvey for the most of the season. His performances in games such as Liverpool’s home tie against Chelsea, and the manner in which he took his goal, showed the sort of poise and dynamism he could bring to a team lacking in both these departments.

So why since Rodgers arrival has he found himself so superfluous? One reason seems to be Rodger’s Villas-Boas-like knack of deeming players unable to adapt to his style football. Players such as Adam and Spearing have found themselves both sold and loaned out respectively due to their perceived inability to adapt to a quicker, short-style passing game. Though arguably correct in the case of the afore mentioned duo, Henderson was one of Liverpool’s bright sparks in an otherwise dim season during 2011/12, showing a particular capability to win back possession and recycle the ball quickly and efficiently, notably when deployed in the centre of midfield.

Rodgers though, does not agree and has instead brought in Joe Allen and Real Madrid loan Nuri Şahin. These two, along with Lucas and Steven Gerrard, are almost guaranteed a starting place over Henderson. Though unclear, it is somewhat understandable why these players are being given starting places over him. What is less understandable, is his inability to gain a starting place in other areas of Liverpool’s new 4-3-3 formation; Raheem Sterling’s bright start has gained him successive starting places in Liverpool’s last two Premier League matches, and rightly so. Not so rightly, is Rodger’s prerogative of playing Fabio Borini, Stewart Downing and arguably Luis Suarez; all of who have had less than successful starts to their season. The same goes for Steven Gerrard; though captain and match-saver extraordinaire, he has been markedly inconsistent during the past 12 months. Though it would be a bold call dropping Gerrard for anyone, least season Henderson showed his ability to finish under pressure (at Anfield against Chelsea), and his high tempo game would fit nicely in to a rotating midfield of Allen and Şahin.

Henderson is also one of many young English players with the ill-fortunate of having a large price tag over his head. Bought for £16 million by Dalglish and Damien Comolli, it has since come to light that Steve Bruce valued Henderson at only £4 million, and it is only down to Comolli’s baffling transfer strategy that Liverpool paid so much for him. Similarities can be drawn with Andy Carroll and his £35 million price tag. Unluckily for such players, big price tags go hand-in-hand with big expectations. And, although not wholly fulfilled last season, Henderson’s consistent starting position under Dalglish merited a belated call-up from England boss Roy Hodgson for EURO 2012. Despite his inability to get any playing time during the competition, the fact that Henderson was merely chosen shows the faith managers have in his ability.

Similarities can be drawn with his time at Sunderland; twice named their Young Player of the Year, Henderson managed to gain regular first team football at the age of 19, and was also listed on FIFA’s list of ‘young players to watch’ in 2011. Such recognition should not be dismissed as easily as Rodger’s has done so far.

So what now for Henderson? Injuries permitting, he will have a difficult time imposing himself on Rodger’s starting line ups. This should not deter him though. The attributes he posses are ones the Liverpool manager should not ignore, and at only 22 he still has a long career ahead of him. Though not like-for-like, Henderson could one day be seen as a replacement for Steven Gerrard. A bridge too far? Only time will tell. If he’s allowed such time.

The Steven Gerrard Enigma

With the introduction of Brendan Rodgers’ tiki-taka style of football, could this be the beginning of the end of Gerrard’s time as a first team regular?

In a recent article for the Guardian, Jonathan Wilson question whether Steven Gerrard was the solution Liverpool’s problems, citing (amongst other reasons) Gerrard’s tendency to ditch tactical rigidity in an attempt to win games single handedly. Though his penchant for driving runs, long-range shots and Hollywood passes have often saved Liverpool (his emphatic hat trick in Liverpool’s 3-0 derby win over Everton), the appointment of Brendan Rodgers as Liverpool manager could see Gerrard lose this freedom, if not his starting place in the side.

Since suffering from a succession of long term injuries, Gerrard is beginning to enter an awkward time in his career – not old enough to be dropped completely, yet seemingly not young enough to consistently perform on a weekly basis for his club. It is not, however, just his age that places question marks over his future; Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool’s new manager, prefers a short passing, three-man midfield. Steven Gerrard could lose his place to a more disciplined, industrial midfielder in the shape of Jordan Henderson or Lucas Leiva.

Despite a fairly average season, Jordan Henderson’s performances merited an England call up following Frank Lampard’s injury. His work rate and tenacity, as well as his ability to recycle the ball quickly and efficiently could see him both starting, and in a more central roll more regularly. This, along with the imminent return of Lucas Leiva, as well as that of Alberto Aquilani and Charlie Adam and rumours of Gylfi Sigurðsson joining Liverpool could spell competition for Gerrard in Rodgers three-man midfield.

Since their promotion to the Premier League last season, Swansea City received praise for their successful league position, and the way in which they obtained it. Rodgers insistence on possession football, sweeper-like goalkeeping and zonal pressing saw his team beat the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City, and do so comfortably. Doing this requires tactical astuteness from all 11 players on the field; something Gerrard is often associated with lacking.

Rafa Benitez, former Liverpool manager, claimed that Gerrard was at his best when allowed ‘off his leash’, freed from tactical frigidity, given the freedom to place the team on his back and carry them to victory. One problem with this is how controlled Rodgers likes to keep his teams, focusing on ‘possession, transition, pass-think, pass-think, pass-think’. Though not exactly at odds with Gerrard’s style, it would require a substantial transition in to a much more disciplined player, not something one necessarily associates with Gerrard.

This leaves Rodgers in an awkward position – does he allow Gerrard freedom to roam and completely alter his system, or try to take solace from Gerrard’s deeper-lying, controlled position that he has taken under Hodgson’s England reign?

In both games (against Norway and Belgium) Gerrard showed his defensive capabilities, marshaling his midfield, dropping deep and sticking to his designated role. These were, however, only friendly games, pre-tournament warm-ups in which Roy Hodgson was testing various players and tactics in meaningless games. Gerrard would’ve been unwilling to pursue a goal in which the final result is worthless. When the group games come, Gerrard may show his proclivity for storming runs and 30 yard shots.

But for now, Rodgers can take some solace in Gerrard’s recent performances.


DANIEL STURRIDGE – Chelsea FC V S.S.C. Napoli (14/03/2012)


After brief spells at Aston Villa and Coventry City, Daniel Sturridge started playing for Manchester City at 13 where he signed his professional contract at the age of 17. After breaking in to the first team in the 2006-07 season, Sturridge unfortunately sidelined himself for the remainder of the season.

After overcoming his injury, Sturridge returned to both the first and youth teams for City, and is the only player to have scored the FA Youth Cup, FA Cup and Premier League in a single season. Another successful season followed, gaining 16 appearances for the first team, winning Manchester City Young Player of the Year.

Following such a successful start to his career, Sturridge signed for Chelsea at the beginning of the 2009-10 season. He made a number of appearances during his first year, finding the net on a number of occasions, notably on his debut.  It was in the 2010-11 season that Sturridge gained much more media attention, following his loan spell at Bolton Wanders FC; here he captured phenomenal form, scoring 8 goals in 12 appearances.

And so we arrive at the 2011-12 season. With 9 goals and 4 assists so far this calendar year, Sturridge has kept his exceptional form, becoming arguably Chelsea’s most potent attacking threat, despite playing out position. With his pace, balance and dribbling ability, Sturridge has rightly gained a starting place in Chelsea’s biggest game of the season. Can they over come a 3-1 deficit at home to Napoli? Can Sturridge be the one to help them to glory? Find out how he performs here at Putting The I In Team!


It was  always going to be one of those Champions League nights at Stamford Bridge, it’s just a shame that Daniel Sturridge couldn’t see all 120 minutes of it out. With the sort of swagger that very few English players possess, he looked like he could be the player to make the different for Chelsea. Sturridge started the game brightly, his first touch a shot on goal, forcing a save from Napoli’s goalkeeper, Morgan De Sanctis, at the near post. However, following this Sturridge was left with little time on the ball as Napoli began to take a hold of the game. Despite this, Sturridge persisted in using his time on the ball as effectively as possible; a couple of neat passes with his left sided partner Branislav Ivanović and a few decent crosses meant that when he did have the ball, it was hard not to notice him.

When Sturridge did not have the ball, he also looked sharp. Incisive drifting inside, coupled with dropping back to take part in defensive duties meant that in the first 20 minutes he looked one of the better players on the pitch, especially playing on the same surface as Napoli’s coveted attacking threesome.  But, as the game developed, Sturridge’s off the ball movement became laboured, his confidence nearly turning in to boredom as the game seemed just that little bit out of his reach. Despite this, when he received the ball he showed exactly what he’s best at; a couple of sweet step overs, a burst of speed and he fizzed a ferocious ball across the Napoli goal. As the first half came to an end, Sturridge’s movement saw him sticking close to the touchline, as well as couple of wasted opportunities in possession. Though Sturridge’s did fade throughout the first half, when on the ball he looked increasingly dangerous when he received the ball.

The second half saw more of the same from Sturridge – dropping back to help out the defence, a number of neat passes and a dangerous looking ball into the box saw him starting to get in to the game more effectively. Unfortunately, with Chelsea 2-1 up and needing another goal to take the game to extra-time, Sturridge was subbed off in place of Fernando Torres. Whether for tactical or fitness reasons, it was a shame to see Sturridge withdrawn early from a game in which his dynamism could’ve been the difference. Fortunately for Chelsea, they didn’t need him, as they won 4-1 and progressed to the quarter-finals of the Champions League.




RENATO AUGUSTO – FC Barcelona v Bayer 04 Leverkusen (7/03/12)


Hailed as one of Flamengo’s best products in recent years (he was likened to Kaka during his spell at Flamengo), his time at the club was blighted by injury, and in 2008 signed for German side Bayern Leverkusen. Usually playing just behind the strikers or out on either wing, his pace, ability to keep possession, technical ability and awareness, he instantly became a fan favourite. Reports of rumored interest for him by Manchester City in 2010 are a credit to his ability.

I must admit, I have developed a soft spot for Augusto since my time managing Liverpool on Football Manager 12 – I bought him for around 24 million and he proved to be a fantastic player. Though that was only in the realms of computer games, his real life ability makes him a definite must watch.


Playing in the same match as Lionel Messi is always going to be difficult. It is going to be even more difficult to stand out in the same game. And just to make things that little bit more difficult, Messi would have to go and score five absolutely sublime goals, wouldn’t he?

Renato Augusto had the sort of game you’d expect most players to have against Barcelona FC; an inconspicuous one. Starting out on the right side of midfield, and playing high up the pitch in an effort to support the strikers, Augusto was left limited to very little time on the ball during his 66 minutes. However, when he did receive the ball, he displayed a calmness that the rest of his team mates lacked; quick, short, concise passes in an attempt to form Barca-like triangles to work the ball out of his own half. However, these attempts were in vain, as his team mates would allow these moves to break down due to their own passing. However, a couple of times his passing was left wanting, and for one of Barcelona’s seven goals he was at fault; caught dawdling with the ball in the middle of the field, he was quickly disposed and the subsequent movement ultimately led to a(nother) Barcelona goal.

Augusto’s short passing helped his performance in the first half, and when he was caught in possession he showed a great deal of calmness and stability, releasing quick, strong passes to team mates that allowed the team to retain possession when possible. This, along with a number of decent crosses meant his time on the pitch was not wasted.

As expected, he was limited to very little of the ball. However, this made him one of the better players on his team; he managed to stay alert and positive in the face of utmost football adversity, with consistently positive passing, crossing and movement.

The second half only allowed Augusto 22 minutes of play, of which nearly all of them were spent watching Barcelona play. As well as this, he was limited only to a handful of touches, despite moving in to a more central position once Schurrel was brought on. Renato was eventually brought off for defender Oczipka in an attempt to block a Barcelona onslaught, which would ultimately prove to be in vain.

Renato Augusto’s performance summed up that of many players who play against Barcelona; no matter how solid a game you may have, it will always seem average. However, with his short, intelligent passing, strength and calmness, I believe Renato can be proud of his performance, despite the score line and his substitution.