FIRST things first, huge congratulations to Newcastle United midfielder Jack Colback, who received his maiden call-up to the England squad yesterday.
The 24-year-old’s selection for next Wednesday’s friendly with Norway and the following Monday’s Euro 2016 qualifier with Switzerland is testament to Colback’s hard work, diligence and talent, attributes that have enabled him to take his career to a level few could have imagined when he was first coming through the ranks at Sunderland.
While the North-Easterner might not possess the supposed star quality of many of the players who have underperformed so spectacularly in an England shirt at recent major tournaments, his ease in possession and ability to dissect an opposition defence should enable him to feel at home at international level.
Similarly, Roy Hodgson’s decision to call up Aston Villa’s Fabian Delph also displays a pleasing willingness to draw a line under the past.
However, the presence of the two midfielders in the squad that will link up on Sunday highlights the continued omission of a player who divides opinion like few others. A couple of days ago, I suggested on social media that Sunderland’s Lee Cattermole should be given a chance in England colours. It is safe to say that plenty of respondents disagreed.
“I’ll have some of whatever you’ve been smoking,” was one of the more measured responses, yet I stand by my view. Having watched England at first hand for a number of years now, I genuinely believe Cattermole is someone who would significantly enhance the national side’s chances of coping with top-class opposition in a major tournament.
And while in no way wanting to denigrate Colback’s right to international honours, I can’t help thinking Hodgson has called up the wrong North-East midfielder.
Cattermole is not necessarily the right man for a home friendly with Norway, or even to ensure a comfortable passage through an inviting qualifying group where the top two finishers are guaranteed a place in France. But we all know England are pretty adept at that sort of thing anyway.
It’s the tactical crucible of a major tournament where we repeatedly fall down, and as this summer’s World Cup proved once again, simply picking what the manager of the time believes to be the best 11 players doesn’t work.
The sides that played above themselves in Brazil – Costa Rica, Chile, Colombia and even Holland – did so because they adopted very specific tactics to maximise their chances of beating sides who were arguably their superiors on paper.
Those tactics didn’t involve selecting a group of supposedly talented players and throwing them together to make a team. In each case, players were selected to perform a clearly-defined role, which often involved negating an opposition strength or masking a weakness somewhere else on the field.
For most of the last decade, and certainly stretching back to the previous World Cup in South Africa, England’s key weakness has been at the heart of their central defence and the base of their midfield.
Just as John Terry and Matthew Upson’s collective lack of pace was brutally exposed in Bloemfontein, so Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka’s positional uncertainty was England’s undoing in Manaus and Sao Paolo.
On each occasion, however, the central defenders were repeatedly left wide open because of a lack of cover in front of them. Gareth Barry’s immobility rendered him completely ineffective in South Africa, while Gerrard’s desire to push forward and uncertainty under the high ball contributed to England’s undoing in Brazil.
We have not had a natural holding midfielder in the team since Owen Hargreaves briefly shone in the 2006 World Cup in Germany, and for all that they are neat and tidy passers of the ball, neither Colback nor Delph are that player either. If Hodgson is thinking of playing either alongside Jack Wilshere at the base of England’s midfield, the age-old problems of a lack of defensive cover will remain.
All of which brings us to Cattermole, or ‘Clattermole’ as he has been branded by his critics, most of whom like to trot off a list of disciplinary issues from three or four years ago to justify their opinion of the Teessider’s abilities.
Yes, there have been times in the past when Cattermole was a liability. And yes, until he is tried in the cutthroat environs of international football, where referees are generally quick to latch on to even the most minor of indiscretions, we will never truly know if he is likely to be one again.
But having watched the 26-year-old in the second half of the last campaign and the opening few weeks of the current season, I do not believe there is a better defensive midfielder in the country.
His discipline has unquestionably improved, with his only dismissal last season coming courtesy of a mistimed tackle at Hull. Having been instructed not to dive in at every opportunity, he has clearly made a concerted effort to rein in his more emotional instincts.
In doing so, his game has improved, and he is currently playing better than at any time since he first burst on to the scene at Middlesbrough and was winning England Under-21 caps galore as, somewhat ironically, he was widely tipped as a future international.
His passion, commitment and fierce will to win were key factors in Sunderland’s ‘great escape’ last season, indeed had Poyet not recalled him in March, I’m pretty sure the Black Cats would have dropped into the Championship.
Poyet, of course, was ready to sell Cattermole in January, influenced perhaps in part by his reputation. He bought one of his Brighton favourites, Liam Bridcutt, to replace him, but Cattermole’s form has forced the Uruguayan to perform a dramatic U-turn.
Now, Cattermole is the linchpin of the Sunderland midfield, and while his ability with the ball at his feet is often downplayed – witness the sensational strike at West Brom on the opening day of the season – it is his positional discipline, closing down of opponents and ability to track runners in order to regain possession that make him so influential.
Sadly, you don’t see that on a Match of the Day highlights package, so London-based observers continue to deride him as a relic and Hodgson appears to be equally oblivious to his talents.
That is shame. England will no doubt trounce Norway on Wednesday and ultimately cruise through another qualifying campaign. Come the summer of 2016 though, we will be wondering why the leading European sides pass right through us once again.