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Rickie Lambert, after scoring 2 in 2 for England, will start for the national team tonight. He’s been such a success, not just in his goalscoring but having narrowly missed chances and doing a decent job as the central point of attack, that maybe we should look to his example more often.
When Lambert was called up, this was widely seen as a symptom of how understaffed the national team is. Just 4 years ago he was playing for Bristol Rovers, now he’s playing for England! It’s disgraceful!
Of course, Lambert seems to have maintained an air of zen while the media threw one of their usual hissyfits, performed in spectacular style, and now that sort of contrast is a positive. He used to work in a beetroot factory, now he’s playing for England! What a great story!
Although it probably won’t be the case, I hope this is the start of a new trend for England. While the low number of English players playing first team football in the top flight is definitely a problem, the multicultural nature of the Premier League means that most players who excel in the Premier League, even if only for a short period, are ready for the step-up to international football.
Before England played France in 2004 injuries and suspensions meant that Ledley King, a fair few places down the pecking order, would play. There was panic among the media experts. Being thrown in at the deep end would be too much for him, he’d be torn apart like Tony Adams was by Marco van Basten in 1988.
In the end, King performed pretty well – although he never solidified his place as England’s first choice centre half, he proved against France he was good enough to rise to the challenge were he to be called on again.
The difference between Adams and King, to my mind at least, is that the Premier League, with it’s huge number of foreign players, gives the players who do hold down a first team place a taste of dealing with the best players in the world, in all their class and variety. Of course, there will always be players who aren’t good enough to deal with Thierry Henry, to unsettle Marcel Desailly or out-think Xabi Alonso, but playing for Tottenham or Southampton in the Premier League prepares the players for playing against that type of player in a way that they previously won’t have been.
Rather than talking about the failings of the ‘golden generation’ or Wayne Rooney’s indulgences during the summer and on the pitch, I’d argue it’s the failure to integrate good but not great players that has cost England in recent years.
For a long time, England insisted on shoehorning Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard into the same central midfield, meaning both had to constantly look over their shoulder to check the other was holding back, before bombing on, as was instinctive for both players at the time. Dropping one would mean that the other would have the assurance of knowing the guy behind them would stay back by instinct, while the man on the bench could be used either as an impact sub or to coax better performances out of an underperforming first team player.
(That’s not to say I disagree with Gerrard and Lampard being paired at the base of England’s midfield – both are more conservative, cautious players these days.)
In recent years, players like Scott Parker, Trevor Sinclair and now Lambert have come in and done a good but not spectacular job, much to the national media’s amazement, for some reason.
It seems that the first choice for any position must be superstars or young players who are massively flawed but at least have time to become superstars. We’d all prefer the next debutant to tear the opposition apart single-handedly, but it’s not always possible. When aiming not for greatness but someone to come in and perform a function, a player who’s merely good can be the best choice to do a good job.