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England’s Golden Generation ultimately failed to live up to the hype. Heading into multiple tournaments tipped to go far, the Three Lions regularly fell at the quarter-finals. The likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand all failed to carry their club form over onto the international stage.
There have been numerous autopsies into why that crop of players failed to deliver and results varied from being poorly used by Sven-Göran Eriksson to the individuals not being mentally tough enough to shoulder the burden of delivering for the nation.
The truth might be a mixture of both. An argument could be made, however, to say the players simply weren’t as good as billed. All of the big hitters looked the part for their respective clubs but how much of that had to do with the players they happened to line up alongside?
Rooney was playing alongside Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tévez and Dimitar Berbatov for one of the best sides in Europe at the time. Lampard was bossing a José Mourinho Chelsea side changing the landscape of English football. Gerrard was the poster boy for Rafael Benítez’s defensively superb Liverpool team.
Of course, they had to be at a certain level to claim a starting berth in these sides but, for example, how much of their reputation happened to be built on the team’s achievements?
The failure of this Golden Generation could’ve been a culmination of all three. They weren’t as good as many believed them to be, but the system they were deployed in didn’t help. The pressure to live up to that hype handicapped them psychologically and it ended in disappointment – failing to qualify for Euro 2008.
Spain’s Golden Generation delivered one World Cup and two European Championships. France claimed the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000. Their current crop of players have a World Cup to their name and plenty of youth and talent to get excited about.
These nations manage to get the best out of their players. England didn’t and haven’t for a while. But this group assembled by Gareth Southgate could actually be the nation's true Golden Generation.
With a World Cup semi-final under their belt, they also reached the semi-finals of the Nations League and look destined to go far in future international tournaments.
On paper, the players in the current squad don’t match up to Gerrard, Lampard, Rooney and the rest of the players from that era. But they seem better equipped and are perhaps more underrated than previous England teams.
The main area of concern at this moment in time is the goalkeeper position. Everton's Jordan Pickford is the number one in Southgate's eyes but his club form has dipped and he is prone to making high-profile mistakes. Nick Pope's Burnley aren't playing the best of football this season and Dean Henderson rarely plays a game for Man Utd, so just like at Everton, there isn't enough competition for Pickford's number one spot.
Pickford, though cocky by nature, appears to suffer from a lack of competition, the Everton man gets complacent and this is when the errors start creeping in. His form for England hasn't suffered as it has for the Toffees but even his club form has picked up since Ancelotti brought in Swedish number one Robert Olsen from Roma.
The Three Lions have an abundance of right-backs to pick from with Trent Alexander-Arnold, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker all in contention. Each of the quartet play Champions League football. At centre-back, Southgate can pick from a host of names playing at the top level in Joe Gomez, Harry Maguire, John Stones, Michael Keane, Eric Dier and Tyrone Mings. Ben Chilwell and teenager Bukayo Saka offer options at left-back, as does Chelsea's Reece James, though he is more naturally a right-back by trade.
Midfield has been considered an area of weakness, but the emergence of Mason Mount, Declan Rice, Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Jude Bellingham, suggests that the future is bright for Southgate's young side. Experience will be the key. The more international these young midfielders play together, the more their understanding of each other's games will improve. Liverpool's Jordan Henderson is the perfect leader that will be responsible for guiding some of the younger players and while he isn't young, Kalvin Phillips will also benefit from the Liverpool captain's experience.
In attack, England have three of the best-attacking talents in Europe right now. Harry Kane is as prolific as they come and is a leading No.9. Raheem Sterling is one of the most prolific wide forwards ever, though he hasn't been in top form for City this season and Man City have started the season slowly, but they are both improving. Jadon Sancho just delivers. He’s the star of the Borussia Dortmund team and he’s quickly becoming a key creator for England.
That’s without including Marcus Rashford or Callum Hudson-Odoi. There are others, too. Southgate’s attack is stacked. Danny Ings seems to have gotten over his injury-prone stage and now turns out regularly for the Saints and is delivering goals at a consistent rate. Everton forward, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, has announced himself of the Premier League stage this season with 11-goals in 16 games and has scored 2-goals in his first five England caps, while Tammy Abraham is featuring more regularly for Chelsea now and that can only benefit Southgate's side.
But what is impressive, however, is how they don’t just perform from an individual point of view but do so within the system Southgate is using. Perhaps it’s the rise of social media and tribal bias playing a part but this squad is downplayed. Expectations aren’t anywhere near as high but this group is showing the mental fortitude to defy the odds.
This England side has a ruthless edge to it. One so many of the former England teams have lacked. They have the attitude, the ability and the experience to build on. They are very much the real deal and this belief isn’t built on reputation from club football either. The nation could be sleeping on the genuine Golden Generation.