If Saturday night in Berlin truly witnessed the birth of a new England then the identity of the opposition was fitting.
It was Germany who so ruthlessly signalled the beginning of the end for England's previous talent cycle - ringing the death knell for the Golden Generation in Bloemfontein in 2010 as Joachim Low’s young and progressive team exposed the fraudulent claims of greatness attached to Fabio Capello’s creaking squad in a 4-1 World Cup last-16 exit.
Six years on, Roy Hodgson’s young tyros produced a performance so full of verve and potential that it hinted at a new era for the national side. This is not a generation saddled with the celebrity which accompanied their predecessors but there is now emergent hope, thanks to a fearless comeback from 2-0 down to Germany, that they might just surpass their mediocre achievements on the pitch.
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And what better way to enshrine a definitive cultural shift away from the tarnished Golden Generation than to drop the last remnant of it from the team? After Saturday's 3-2 friendly win, Wayne Rooney's hold on an England place has never looked more precarious.
Rooney was a starter in South Africa when the sight of Mesut Ozil, then a Werder Bremen prospect, and Thomas Muller, one year out of Bayern Munich’s amateur side, running rings around Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard heralded the symbolic death of a team, the moment when a decade’s worth of promises and hype were dismantled.
But still, after replacing Fabio Capello it took Hodgson years to oversee the managed decline of the Golden Generation.
Rio Ferdinand was discarded before Euro 2012, Ashley Cole was dumped just before the 2014 World Cup and Lampard and Gerrard – whose dysfunctional midfield partnership, contrasted with their star status, was the most glaring manifestation of the yawning gap between achievement and acclaim – both retired after the disappointing tournament in Brazil.
Germany's Thomas Muller celebrates scoring his second goal
Image credit: PA Photos
While no less than six of the young Germany team who sent England spinning out of the World Cup featured again in Berlin on Saturday night – Ozil, Muller, Manuel Neuer, Sami Khedira, Lukas Podolski and Mario Gomez – England did not have a single survivor on the pitch. Six years ago, Germany were in the early stages of a cycle that would take them to World Cup glory in Brazil; England were approaching the end of one which delivered only disappointment.
England’s generational shift since the demise of the Golden Generation is well pronounced thanks to Hodgson’s excellent rebuilding work since the World Cup. Already the third youngest team in Euro 2016 qualifying, they have reinvented themselves again with three inclusions from Spurs, who all excelled in Berlin. Dele Alli, Harry Kane and Eric Dier are England’s new face to the world.
But watching from his sofa, and tweeting his support enthusiastically, was the last vestige of the Golden Generation, a player whose return from injury may well upset the equilibrium Hodgson established with his selection in Germany: Wayne Rooney.
It seems ridiculous to suggest that the reinstatement of the England captain, who is also England’s top scorer in Euro 2016 qualifying and their all-time record goalscorer, has the potential to throw Hodgson’s plans off course but that is the only conclusion which can be reached after a night when England impressed in two separate attacking configurations and with two of the form players in the Premier League both scoring exceptional goals.
Firstly, in the 4-3-3 formation which Hodgson preferred in the latter part of qualifying, lone centre-forward Kane scored a goal of audacious quality, aping Johan Cruyff’s famous turn in an unlikely tribute to the genius football sadly lost this week. Alli also pushed up high at times to make it more of a 4-2-3-1.
Kane is able - England's 4-3-3
Secondly, after the introduction of Jamie Vardy and Ross Barkley after 71 minutes, England switched to the diamond formation with which they started the Euro 2016 qualifying process. It created a front two which paired the two top scorers in the Premier League this season: Kane with 21 and Vardy with 19.
Dual threat - England's diamond formation
Vardy was on the pitch for only four minutes before he scored a goal which managed to eclipse even Kane’s, flicking the ball with the back of his heel to send Nathaniel Clyne’s cross flying past Neuer. Two iterations of England, both producing sublime goals and neither encumbered by Rooney, whose performances for Manchester United this season have painted a picture of a forward the wrong side of 30 and evidently in decline.
Former Germany international Lothar Matthaus, watching in the ITV studio, caught the prevailing mood perfectly with his post-match analysis.
“It’s surprised me completely,” he said of England’s performance, “especially when you see the team, young players, but players who like to win, who like to give the best for their country. I hope the coach saw it too and gives these players now the chance to build a good team for the European Championships and later for the World Cup 2018. This is a team who have a big chance when they play like today to be by the best teams in the world in three years.
I am a fan of Wayne Rooney, but today we didn’t miss him in the game.
Rooney’s seven goals in qualifying, taking him past Sir Bobby Charlton and onto 51 goals for England, coupled with his status as England captain mean it is impossible for Hodgson to not take him to the Euros – even if Kane, Vardy, Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge and Theo Walcott all finish the season fit and in form. In that scenario, it’s an easy decision to cut Walcott and take the vastly experienced Rooney - but he can no longer command a starting role.
Hodgson began preparing the ground for taking the nuclear option of dropping his captain nine days prior to the Germany friendly. In a chat with the nation’s press, he made it quite explicit that Rooney did not enjoy protected status. “Wayne Rooney realises that,” Hodgson said. “He knows that, if I think others are better or the right men to play in a particular way, he’ll accept that because he’s a footballer, our leader and our captain. If he’s fit, he’ll go. But not as an automatic starter.”
Hodgson cast as the iconoclast.
England’s 68-year-old manager continues to defy the caricature of conservatism which has attached itself despite bold picks with the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in Euro 2012 and Raheem Sterling at the 2014 World Cup, but following through with his threat to bench Rooney would finally destroy such pre-conceptions for good. It would also give this emergent England team the best chance of enjoying success at Euro 2016 – however that may be defined in the post-Golden Generation era.
Nothing signalled that England have moved on from their burdensome past quite like Saturday's win over Germany - a burdensome past which includes Wayne Rooney.
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