Tuesday, 1 June 2010
It doesn't seem like so long ago that England fans were filled with optimism and confidence. In Fabio Capello they had one of the best managers in the world, with a proven track record of getting the very best out of pampered high potential/low output superstars, like the kind the England team is filled with. But as we head into the World Cup, uncertainty looms over his future, and questions are being raised over the team's recent lacklustre performances. Is Capello losing the plot? Or is there a deeper underlying issue here? And does it matter?
England can now look back on a highly impressive qualification campaign, arguably epitomised by their 4-1 demolition of Croatia, the team that kept them out of Euro 2008, in which young Theo Walcott scored a hat trick. That day now looks an era away as Theo's star fades away as fast as it rose, and the England team in general look shakier with each performance.
At the time I raised a question over Capello's controversial decision to sack John Terry as England captain. After all this was a team that had played together for over a year after this affair came out in the open with seemingly no ill effect, so it made no sense to change the captain for the sake of team performance. Instead it became apparent that this was a decision made in a misguided attempt to appease the press and ward off pressure, a decision only someone who is woefully inexperienced with the British gutter press could make.
Conversely, I worried that this decision might in fact bring drama and tension to a dressing room where previously none existed, drive divisions between groups of players, and in dignifying the sensationalism of the press with a response, encourage and lend credence towards such actions. The reason a manager like José Mourinho is so successful is that when something like this comes along he diverts attention away from his players and onto himself with his shenanigans. Here Capello has flown in the face of conventional logic and done the opposite. I defy anyone to fault that logic.
In retrospect, it would appear these worries were well founded. The England team we have seen in these past few games has been one bereft of the confidence and organisation that a real captain with strong leadership qualities would bring to the team. It has not been helped by a captain facing serious fitness problems, who has looked increasingly shaky in recent games; in the Japan game his attention lapses could and probably should have gifted Japan another two goals. It boggles the mind that people even bring which clubs these people play for into the equation. Forget Terry and Lampard, Gerrard, Rooney and even David James would have been better choices to wear the armband than Rio Ferdinand.
Meanwhile Vice Captain Gerrard has his own affair and underage pregnant girlfriend scandals to worry about. As of yet his super injunction is preventing these tales from hitting the press, but what if they do before the World Cup, what then? More chopping and changing from Capello? The manager's first big mistake as England manager has set a dangerous precedent in a world where Terry-esque scandals are common tabloid fodder, and one that appears to be affecting the performances of his stuttering team. This should be a massive worry for any England fan in the run up to the World Cup.
But are England's woes primarily a result of mismanagement and off the pitch strife, or is there more to be concerned about? Let's take a position-by-position look at how the team is doing right now.
Clearly we have had issues with the position of goalkeeper in recent years. Robert Green has been first choice for a while, but his form has waned recently, not helped by the burden placed on him at the poor club he plays for. David James is better but is getting on in the years, and is still prone to the odd blunder. He has the experience, but his faffing about in the first half vs Japan did little in inspire confidence in anyone on or off the pitch. Young Joe Hart is easily the best English goalkeeper right now, and has next to no experience at this level. Fresh are the memories of then hotly tipped Scott Carson's disastrous introduction to international football from which he has never recovered, but Joe Hart has done much to allay such fears with a strong and cool headed performance against Japan. If Capello is feeling brave he might just find that Joe Hart is the answer to this problem, this year and for many years going into the future.
Meanwhile, defense has generally been England's strongest asset in recent years, and indeed this is a defense that pretty much picks itself. Ashley Cole is arguably the best left back in the world, something few can deny with a straight face after the past few seasons, and Terry and Rio are both top notch centre backs. Glen Johnson is a bit of a weak spot at right back, but there is little question that he is the best option available, especially with Micah Richards' current loss of form. Despite this, they have looked pretty shaky these last few games, lacking organisation and cohesion. Much of this can probably be blamed on Rio's struggle for form and fitness, but one still has to worry about the lack of structure this back four has shown, when it is the captain's job to marshall them all together.
The midfield is a part of the pitch over which many questions remain. The biggest dilemma has been the loss of Gareth Barry to injury. Carrick and Huddlestone both look ill equipped to fill in for him, and the manager has strangely refused to try out Scott Parker in this role. Instead it looks like we'll see a return to the Lampard/Gerrard partnership in the middle of the pitch that has stirred so much controversy, and personally I think that is a great decision. I am always stunned to hear assertions that these two players can't play at the same time. After all Gerrard did start his club and international career as a holding midfielder, where he was absolutely fantastic. How easy people seem to have forgotten that they played together in the middle throughout the qualifiers and finals for Euro 2004 to great effect, arguably that tournament is the best England have played since Euro 96, why do people ignore this?
The secret is you have to tell Gerrard to sit back a bit and play responsibly, as he used to do, and Sven just didn't have the balls to do this. Capello does it seems. Many people seem to take exception to the notion of Gerrard sitting back when he's so good at going forward. Well ok, but he's also fantastic at playing deep and controlling the midfield, arguably he's better there in fact and that's probably more important for this England team which currently lacks a good holding midfielder, while they already have in Frank Lampard one of the best attacking midfielders in the world at the moment, a position Capello has indicated zero possibility that he will give to Gerrard ahead of Lampard. One of Ancelotti's biggest mistakes as Chelsea manager was playing Lampard in a deeper role, remember how poorly Lampard started this season? As soon as he pushed him forward he sprang to life, brought Chelsea the double and had the most prolific season of his career. This is a lesson Capello would do well to note, and it looks like he has.
There has also been some question of who to play on the wings, with many suggesting that we try an exciting fast paced duo of Lennon and Theo. Well after seeing just how toothless the two of them are in recent friendlies, I think we can safely put that experiment to rest for now. Maybe in a few years time, but not now. There is little doubt in my mind that those positions would be better in the hands of James Milner and Joe Cole (with Lennon as an impact player), or Gerrard if Barry is fit to play the holding midfield role. These players have quality and creativity in abundance and have shown some top form in recent months.
Up front we find one of the few certainties in this England team, that Wayne Rooney will start. Rooney is one of the best players in the world right now, and without a doubt essential to England. The question is who will partner him. The answer depends on what role you want to play Rooney in. Do you play him in an advanced position where he can bag a ton of goals, or play him deeper where he can control the game more. Traditionally he has played the latter for both club and country and frankly few players anywhere do it better. But this season, following the departure of goal-machine Ronaldo, Rooney has pushed into a more advanced position for United, and scored hatloads despite missing out on the golden boot.
Presumably if you play Rooney in this typical deep position you would want to partner him with a goal poacher like Defoe or Bent, and if you play him further up you would partner him with a workhorse like Heskey or a target man like Crouch. Right now it looks like Bent is going to be dropped from the final squad, perhaps indicating that Capello intends to play Rooney in an advanced position. Then again, Crouch's awesome scoring record for England suggests that he could arguably play in the more advanced position with Rooney behind him. At the same time one has to wonder what Heskey has done to earn his place in the squad, despite not playing for his club. Indeed he's been pushed out of the Villa side by Agbonlahor, another Englishman who strangely doesn't get a look in.
The alternative is to play a 4-3-3 formation, as England did for 20 minutes against Japan, with Rooney up front on his own, two wide men supporting him and three central midfielders. This is good as you could presumably then play both Lampard and Gerrard in advanced positions with Barry sitting back. But remember that England have tried this in the past with Rooney, and it didn't work out too well. I expect Capello will keep it in mind, but won't use such a tactic unless he feels he has to.
Following this analysis, I think I can make a pretty good projection of who Capello is going to pick for his final 23 man squad tomorrow:
Goalkeepers: Joe Hart (Manchester City), David James (Portsmouth), Robert Green (West Ham).
Defenders: Leighton Baines (Everton), Jamie Carragher (Liverpool), Ashley Cole (Chelsea), Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United), Glen Johnson (Liverpool), Ledley King (Tottenham), John Terry (Chelsea).
Midfielders: Gareth Barry - if fit (Manchester City), Michael Carrick (Manchester United), Joe Cole (Chelsea), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Tom Huddlestone (Tottenham), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), Aaron Lennon (Tottenham), James Milner (Aston Villa), Theo Walcott (Arsenal).
Forwards: Peter Crouch (Tottenham), Jermain Defoe (Tottenham), Emile Heskey (Aston Villa), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
And for the record this who I would pick, with first team selection in bold:
Goalkeepers: Joe Hart (Manchester City), David James (Portsmouth), Robert Green (West Ham).
Defenders: Stephen Warnock (Aston Villa), Jamie Carragher (Liverpool), Ashley Cole (Chelsea), Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United), Glen Johnson (Liverpool), Ledley King (Tottenham), John Terry (Chelsea).
Midfielders: Gareth Barry (Manchester City), Michael Carrick (Manchester United), Joe Cole (Chelsea), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), Aaron Lennon (Tottenham), James Milner (Aston Villa), Scott Parker (West Ham), Shaun Wright-Phillips (Manchester City).
Forwards: Darren Bent (Sunderland), Peter Crouch (Tottenham), Jermain Defoe (Tottenham), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
Although if Gareth Barry is fit I'd probably play him instead of Joe Cole and stick Gerrard out on the left.
So ultimately, should England fans be worried or upbeat? This is, without a shadow of a doubt, an England team with things to be concerned about both on and off the pitch, and real questions being asked of both the players and the manager. But frankly one would do well not to read too much into pre-tournament friendlies or even the final qualifiers as an indication of form. After all both finalists from 2006, Italy and France, had pretty underwhelming pre tournament friendlies, scandals and off the pitch strife to rival what England have this year. Believe chaps, and hope that Fabio knows what he's doing.