By the time the 2018 World Cup kicks off in Russia this summer, it will have been 52 years since Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet trophy, England’s one and only major international honour at senior level.
In the interim period, the Three Lions have failed to even reach the final of football’s grandest tournament, and have only once gotten as far as the last four, slipping to a penalty shootout defeat to West Germany at Italia ’90.
Since the advent of the Premier League in 1992, the main reason cited for England’s lack of progress on the international stage has been the influx of foreign stars into the country’s top flight, with many feeling such imports have come at the expense of homegrown talent receiving top-level opportunities.
But that hasn’t prevented England producing some stellar players over the last two decades. The ‘Golden Generation’ of the 2000s, for example, featuring Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, et al, was brimming with quality, yet underwhelmed at tournaments.
As the World Cup in Russia looms, for once, expectations of English success are extremely low. The hysteria that ordinarily surrounds a major tournament year, when patriotism conjures frankly unmerited belief, has been tempered by realism – the current talent pool manager Gareth Southgate has to choose from does not inspire great confidence.
And the numbers back this up. Ahead of upcoming friendlies with the Netherlands and Italy, we’ve analysed Southgate’s 27-man squad and compared the Three Lions’ average experience levels against the teams currently residing in the top ten of FIFA’s world rankings.
England, who rank 16th, are without star striker Harry Kane for the international double-header, while the squads of the other nations studied here – Germany, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, France and Chile – vary in size as the managers seek to give opportunities to fringe players ahead of making their final 23-man selection.
The figures don’t make for inspiring reading for Southgate’s charges. The current 27-man squad boast fewer cumulative international caps than any top-ten side, with their total of 506 fewer even than the likes of Switzerland and France, whose bosses have selected only 23 and 24 players respectively in their most recent squads.
England’s current average of 18.74 senior caps per player, therefore, is lower than any top-ten nation. Ninth-ranked France are closest to that figure with an average of 23.46 caps, while Belgium lead the way with 40.93.
Southgate’s squad is, however, among the most youthful, with an average age of 26 years higher only than Les Blues, who are blessed with such prodigal talents as 19-year-old Kylian Mbappé and Barcelona’s 20-year-old Ousmane Dembélé.
When it comes to club football experience, England once again fall drastically short. The 27 men in Southgate’s squad have made 3,566 top-flight appearances between them. Chile are the only top-ten nation with fewer than 4,000, while Germany, Spain, Brazil and Argentina all break the 4,000 mark, and Belgium again streak ahead with 6,127.
On average, though, world champions Germany’s 26-man selection tops Roberto Martínez’s 28-man squad, with 223.92 top-flight appearances per player to the Red Devils’ 218.82.
Champions League disadvantage
If the World Cup is international football’s most prestigious platform, the Champions League is its club-level cousin. The continental competition has become the team prize every player wants to win, and Europe’s best and brightest stars regularly save their finest moments for its latter stages.
With so many eyes on the Champions League season after season, experience under the competition’s bright lights should serve players well when the World Cup roles around, already accustomed to the intense scrutiny of millions of TV viewers and a high-pressure environment.
To that end, England again might struggle. Of the European nations inside FIFA’s top ten, only Poland’s current squad have made fewer career appearances in the Champions League, with a total of 229 and a per-player average of 7.9, to England’s 275 and 10.19 respectively.
Indeed, even when factoring in the non-European sides, whose players will almost invariably have begun their careers with Champions League football a distant dream, only Chile (128 total appearances and 5.33 per player) have less experience in Europe’s premier club competition than England.
Brazil, who count multiple-time Champions League winners Marcelo and Dani Alves among their ranks, have 743 total appearances for an average of 29.72 per player, while Argentina, with four-time winner Lionel Messi their star performer, have 611 total Champions League appearances between them, at an average of 22.63 per player.
If Champions League experience is to be any kind of a factor at the World Cup this summer, Spain find themselves in good stead. La Liga giants Real Madrid and Barcelona have won the competition in each of the last four seasons, and six times in the last decade.
With veterans like Sergio Ramos, Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets still going strong, the 2010 World Cup winners have accumulated 935 Champions League appearances, for an average of 38.96 per player – comfortably the highest of the FIFA top ten.
Whether it’s down to a lack of opportunities due to the Premier League’s swathe of overseas players, a failure to produce budding stars at academy level, or English clubs’ recent under-perfromance in continental competitions, England are at a distinct experience disadvantage heading into this summer’s World Cup.
It’s an issue English football needs to remedy if its years of hurt are to be ended.