Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: If the cap fits...Trent’s snub is not a big deal

International caps are a strange barometer of success. And when players are overlooked for their country there is often a detailed examination of why they were omitted, as happened with Trent Alexander-Arnold this week.

England's Trent Alexander-Arnold
England's Trent Alexander-Arnold

The Liverpool full-back is England’s most gifted player in his position, but has not maintained the astonishing standards of the previous two seasons. Even so, he remains England’s best prospective option for the next decade.

His absence from Gareth Southgate’s squad this week is a firm indication he will not be part of the European Championships, given that this is the last set of fixtures before the squad is announced by June 1st’s deadline.

Time is on the 22-year old’s side, but through history there have been many great players whose international career fell short.

One of Alexander-Arnold’s predecessors in a Liverpool shirt is the most outstanding example. Alan Hansen was one of the finest centre-halves of any generation, winning eight league titles and three European Cups. Yet he won just 26 caps for Scotland.

A major factor was Alex Ferguson, who took over the national team following the sudden death of Jock Stein in 1985.

Ferguson preferred his Aberdeen centre-back pairing of Willie Miller and Alex McLeish. Hansen captained Liverpool to the double in 1986 playing some of his finest football in the process but was, astonishingly, left out of the 1986 World Cup squad altogether.

Ferguson was not the only international manager who showed bias to his club players. Without former Ipswich manager Bobby Robson in charge of England, it is unlikely Terry Butcher would have accumulated as many as 77 England caps.

Robson also stood accused of leaning too heavily on a select band of players, with goalkeeper Peter Shilton clearly way past his best at the 1990 World Cup.

There has always been a caution surrounding international football management. With so few games compared to club football, the mercurial talents are often overlooked.

Matt Le Tissier earned just eight England caps in the 1990s, while the more workmanlike midfielder Robert Lee racked up 21. It was Lee who was preferred to Paul Gascoigne at the 1998 World Cup.

But by the 2000s an England cap was more easily earned, particularly during Sven Goran Eriksson’s tenure.

The Swede threatened to send out two separate teams for each half of a friendly match against Portugal in 2004, eventually settling on nine substitutions. As squad football became more important in the Premier League, so caps were spread more widely at international level.

How an uncapped midfield great like Wolves’ Kenny Hibbitt must have wished he had been playing in the Eriksson years, when Gavin McCann and Lee Bowyer were among those given game time in England’s midfield.

Now, nobody thinks twice about wholesale squad changes, particularly when friendlies are taken into account.

It throws up some interesting comparisons. A current player like Adam Lallana has 34 England caps. That’s five more than the combined totals of 70s legends Rodney Marsh, Stan Bowles, Frank Worthington, Alan Hudson, Peter Osgood and Charlie George.

Has it diminished the England cap? That would not do justice to those who have worked tirelessly to earn theirs in this era. Try telling Conor Coady or Ollie Watkins that their call-ups are somehow worth less than those awarded in years gone by.

The international cap may be more freely available, but for those who own one it is not diminished.

It is possible that supporters and the media view international football through a different lens to years gone by. That may have something to do with the growth of the Premier League, where most of England’s players compete and are judged. More than ever before, careers are defined by club achievements rather than international recognition.

The conversation this week over Southgate’s England selections felt measured, compared to the Robson era when debate was far more heated.

Today’s caps are spread around a far greater number of players, so it is easier to forget specific team selections.

Just ask anyone over the age of 40 to name the England XI which took the field against West Germany in the 1990 World Cup semi-final, then ask them to name the starting XI against Croatia in the semi-final of 2018, less than three years ago.

It is a safe bet they will recall the team of three decades earlier far more accurately.

On Thursday night, Southgate made five substitutions at Wembley against San Marino when, in truth, the game could have been won with 10 players alone. The team will chop and change again before the European Championships.

When the England squad for the tournament is announced there will be those left behind who feel they deserved better. But because we are in an era of squad rotation, grievances will pass more quickly. Alexander-Arnold will have plenty of time to earn a decent number of caps given the opportunities that exist today.

An international omission – even from a major tournament – is certainly not the scandal it was in Hansen’s day.

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