I have to be honest, while I did foresee huge difficulties for England in this World Cup, I did not actually believe they would come true. However, after two shocking performances to date, England have succeeded somehow in self destructing. So what is going on there? Why are they suddenly in serious danger of not making the knock out stages? Why are the players now seemingly not happy and the manager’s position under threat? Here are my thoughts and fears that I had pre tournament, some of which have been a factor so far.
No Number 1.
This is huge. England went into this World Cup with no first choice keeper. How a manager of Capello’s stature could allow this to transpire is baffling. England were pretty much guaranteed qualification this time last year, thus Capello had plenty of time to get it right.
While not blessed with a huge pool of talent in the goalkeeping stakes, but he knew this when he took over. Yes they had injuries, but if Robert Green was his first choice all along, he could have made this clear to everybody, especially the player on the run up to the competition. Joe Hart was and still is the form ‘keeper, but was limited to just a few minutes in the warm up games. Obviously it posed a huge risk throwing a rookie like Hart in, but given his run of incredible form all season, it appears to have been a mistake not to play him in the games that have been played between qualification and the USA game which began their meltdown. Green and James were involved in a relegation battle all season, playing in sides lacking in confidence, Hart was playing in a team that was breaking club records and pushing for Europe.
It looks like James has the spot now, he was solid against Algeria, but you could see the effect that Green’s mistake against the USA had on the team. They have yet to recover.
The squad is distinctively average. True, they have some great players, but England posses a squad of players, some of which are simply not good enough to be a World Cup winning side. I have already covered the goalkeeping fiasco in point one.
In defence, they are not much better, although that is not where their primary problem lies. They are solid and won’t concede many goals. Wesley Brown got injured before the tournament and was not selected; this automatically leaves a hole in defence. Same for Rio Ferdinand. The alternatives are not good enough, however. Michael Dawson had a good season, but is he really international quality? Is anybody surprised that Ledley King, a man who barely played two consecutive games in the past five years, who has barely trained in that timeframe, is injured? Was Jamie Carragher right to come back from the self imposed international wilderness? My answer to all three is no. The reality is England have nothing else, a shocking state considering the apparent strength of the Premier League.
Across the midfield, other problems exist. All of these players are quality in their own right, much of them being well placed in the “Golden Generation” bracket that this team has been burdened with. Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry, James Milner, Aaron Lennon and Joe Cole, all top players. Or are they? There is some fire to the argument that only Gerrard and Lampard have done it at the big stage, yet the critics will say both have never done it at international level for the Three Lions. The rest have played the majority of their careers (Joe Cole exempt) outside the upper echelons of the European game.
England are shockingly short in width. The left wing has always been an issue, but a year ago there were seven genuine candidates for the right wing position. Lennon, Shaun Wright Phillips, David Bentley, David Beckham, Theo Walcott, Stuart Downing and Ashley Young were all in with a shout of filling the void and making that position their own. Now, there is barely one, Aaron Lennon, a man that has yet to perform at international level and is too inconsistent at club level. The inclusion of Wright-Phillips was a little strange, considering that he was out shone by Adam Johnson at club level since January, a player who would have added great thrust, speed, creativity and edge to the squad. He can actually cross a ball too. Johnson’s super set piece delivery would also be another asset to a team which they seem to be lacking.
Up top, England’s options are shambolic. They have two genuine strikers of quality – Wayne Rooney and to a lesser extent, Jermaine Defoe. The other options are pitiful. Emile Heskey isn’t, nor never was, an international footballer. He is lucky even to be a Premiership footballer. He played predominately a bit-part-role for Aston Villa this season, and was not exactly prolific in front of goal, yet has started both opening games. Aside from his assist against the US for Gerrard’s opener, Heskeys only contribution so far is ending the World Cup of his captain and one of England’s natural leaders.
Peter Crouch is bordering on another embarrassment for a country so proud of its status in the football world. Again however, there is nothing else there. Darren Bent can count himself a little
unlucky given his 26 goal haul in the Premier League last season, but he is unproven at international level also. I would have taken him however and left either Crouch or Heskey at home. Or both. In fact, using Gerrard in the same role he does behind Fernando Torres at Anfield would be a far more efficient way to operate, no matter how poor a season he had. Bobby Zamora also is a better footballer than Crouch and Heskey, yet he got little or no chances from Capello.
Capello mentioned that the players are suffering from pressure. That comes from having the deadliest media in the world, being funded by blood hungry supporters. Managing and indeed playing for England has higher expectations than most, except for maybe Brazil. Huge reality dose missing somewhere.
Capello can only pick what is there. Ferdinand, Brown, Hargreaves and Beckham are not available for selection. While Adam Johnson and possibly Darren Bent are two players that have bigger claims to be there, he has not got a whole lot to play with. However, he has made the proverbial dogs bolloc*s in selections so far. It was quite clear after the USA game that England were a bit toothless. Even in the pre-World Cup friendlies against Mexico and Japan, the signs were not good.
They lacked spark, creativity and incision then and the same applies now. Capello is perhaps still playing off the qualification campaign, but a lot has changed since then.
Emile Heskey is a route one, last 15 minutes option when you are 1-0 down. Likewise with Crouch. He apparently speaks highly of Heskey and favours a 4-4-2 formation, A formation not really suited for the combination of players at his disposal and certainly not for getting the best out of Lampard, Gerrard and Rooney.
We hear about “Heskey brings the best out in Rooney”. So please point to who at Old Trafford plays like Heskey? Or more so, how come Rooney played the majority of this season, arguably his best ever, spear heading a 4-5-1 formation.
Leaving Joe Cole on the bench for both games is a strange one. John Terry pointed out as such in his now infamous press-call over the weekend and it appears to have unsettled the harmony in the dressing room. Bringing on Wright Phillips in both games was baffling to say the least and starting Milner and then taking him off after 20 odd minutes had implications in the first game. Ledley King another.
Lack of a destructive midfielder
Nicky Butt was England’s star performer in 2002. Back in Germany in 2006, it was Owen Hargreaves. While England didn’t set the world on fire in either tournament, they reached the quarter finals on both occasions, at the end of the day luck was not on their side against the Brazilians and Portuguese. Both Butt and Hargreaves provided an outlet for the other, seemingly more talented players to express themselves. England currently have nobody in that void. When Barry plays he is capable of doing the job of allowing his midfield partner to get forward but part of the role of the of a defensive midfielder is to fill in for the full backs when they get forward.
Furthermore, Gerrard tends to be selected on the left wing with Barry on the pitch, naturally drifting inside as simply, he is not a left winger. Barry is drawn to that gap meaning he is doing twice as much work. As a result, Lampard does not have the free reign he has with Chelsea, while Barry is constantly getting over run in the middle.
The last time England won a World Cup game, against Ecuador in the Last 16 of Germany 2006, Michael Carrick was the man of the match. Too much onus has been put on his poor performances for Manchester Utd over the past twelve months and not enough on the fact he is probably England’s most “European” midfielder, with the ability to hold and create like none other in the squad. He recently received praise from Xabi Alonso, once of Liverpool, for Carrick’s superb ability in similar vain to Alonso’s. This was one of the few areas Capello has stuck to in his “picking players on form” promise.
England have been tormented on this front. Almost the entire first eleven have had short to long term injuries at some stage during the season. I have already mentioned the players not available for selection. Glen Johnson missed a large chunk of the season, as did Ashley Cole on the other flank. Ledley King and to a lesser extent Mathew Upson are not exactly bionic, ditto for Rio Ferdinand whose sick note plight hampered him all season. Aaron Lennon too spent bags of time on the treatment table, while Milner and Barry picked up knocks pre tournament.
More crucially however, was the injury picked up by Wayne Rooney in the first week of March. He has not looked the same player, indeed he has not scored since then for club nor country. All of these disturbances lead us to the next point, one which was my biggest fear for the team, as we approached the kick off….
Players off form
This I believe is England’s Achilles. Too many of their players have had poor seasons, admittedly some down to the injuries just mentioned. That aside, John Terry did not have an inspiring season both on and off the field. Steven Gerrard had arguably his worst ever with Michael Carrick and Gareth Barry not far behind. Emile Heskey was simply woeful, Jermaine Defoe inconsistent after a bright start. Theo Walcott went from Croatian hat trick hero to mediocrity and likewise, Ashley Young went from the £20 million winger to simply obscurity at Villa Park.
The only players who can count themselves in the top of the class bracket were Milner, Ashley Cole and Rooney, all who were injured at the tail end of the season. Outside of these three, Dawson, Hart, Bent, Zamora and Scott Parker have not been given the chance to prove themselves international quality.
John Terry being a prat
England breezed through the qualifiers, winning nine out of ten games, scoring more freely than Don Juan and well, John Terry. This was all before “Team Bridge”. Is it just coincidence that the fortunes of the national team have plummeted since? England lost their back up left full back, their captain and a lot of credibility and dignity.
And if rumours are right, once England’s World Cup campaign is over, more stories will break about two prominent members of the squad, whose temporary injunctions will be removed faster that a WAG’s knickers if they return home defeated on Sunday next.
So what next?
England need huge freshening up. The reality is stark, given the nature of the other game; if they fail to win against Slovenia, they are out. Few would have predicted this, none will accept it and heads will roll if this happens. England can, and I believe will, turn this around and I expect them to go through to the last 16.
Stranger things have happened though and they are at a huge risk of not progressing. Joe Cole will come in and I believe that Michael Carrick will get his chance to shine. Jamie Carragher‘s suspension is a blessing in disguise, so that change is enforced. Ledley King is unlikely to feature, so Upson will get the nod.
Capello has hinted at a total change of tactics which means Gerrard and/or Joe Cole in a supporting role behind Rooney being very likely. The team does lack width, but England are not blessed with it anyway. A fourth change could see Defoe coming in and England sticking to a traditional 4-4-2 again, with Cole wide left, and Gareth Barry missing out. I am going for a 2-0 win, not convincing by any means, but England will get there.
Here is the XI that I feel Capello will pick on Wednesday -