Having analysed Fabio Capello’s options at full-back in his last piece Jamie Smith moves up the park to the wingers, where, he argues, there are lots of options, but little quality within them.
A year ago, Joe Cole and Theo Walcott looked absolute certainties to be in the starting eleven for England at the World Cup. Both were in sparkling form, Cole arguably England’s best player in the 2008-2009 season while Walcott’s hat-trick in Croatia marked his arrival on the international scene.
But serious injuries to both men have restricted their chances this season, with neither appearing in an England shirt for many months.
In a way their absence was a blessing. Qualification was virtually assured and Fabio Capello was able to look through who else he might want to take on the plane to South Africa. But Cole and Walcott have both struggled to get back to fitness and both players now face a tough fight to prove themselves enough to win back their places.
However, none of the men selected by Capello to fill in have shown enough to make them certainties to go to the World Cup, let alone to be regular starters.
James Milner is probably the most likely to go as back-up, simply because his versatility makes him a very handy player to have around. Although critics lambast his sometimes poor delivery, Milner is a workhorse and a genuinely two-footed player. He can also fill in at full-back in an emergency, which is likely to be the deciding factor in him making the trip.
David Beckham keeps shuffling on for the last few minutes to inch closer to becoming England’s most-capped player of all time, but unless he does something special in his loan spell at AC Milan it will be difficult for Capello to take him, despite his wealth of experience and still deadly right foot.
A pair of poor man’s Walcotts in Shaun Wright-Phillips and Aaron Lennon have shared right-wing duties of late but neither has the ability to unlock top-class defences. Lennon may have destroyed Wigan at the weekend but some context is required; he was up against an unfit, not to mention not very good full-back in Erik Edman. He won’t be as dangerous against top-quality opposition and nor will Wright-Phillips, despite his father’s desperate and frankly embarrassing cheerleading on ITV’s sport coverage.
David Bentley was once lauded as the next Beckham but he has suffered from a chronic case of Englishman-not-making-any-progress-at-Spurs-and-instead-becoming-worse, a condition that seems to have been eradicated by Harry Redknapp with the marked improvement of Jermain Defoe, Aaron Lennon and Tom Huddlestone. Bentley has always gone missing in games when he’s been unable to make an impression and now he’s virtually gone missing from the Spurs set-up entirely. He will have to move on in January to rescue his chances and even then, he’s extremely unlikely to be on the plane.
Stewart Downing was a regular in the squad before his ankle injury and is just coming back to fitness, making his Villa debut at the weekend. But he has his work cut out to get in the team at Villa Park with Ashley Young ahead of him in the pecking order. Young would be an exciting option for Capello in South Africa, especially if paired with team-mate Gabby Agbonlahor, but Young especially will have to show that he can make an impact in the big games to make sure he is on the Italian’s radar.
And that’s it from those that have been in the England set up already on Capello’s watch. There are other talented players around; Kieran Richardson, Andrew Driver, Adam Johnson and Chris Eagles could all realistically hope to play for their country in the future if they progress well, but none are even nearly realistic options for the World Cup.
It is helpful to Fabio Capello that he has Steven Gerrard in his ranks. Capello has got round the problem of playing Gerrard and Frank Lampard together by shifting Gerrard out to the left in Joe Cole’s absence, and this is a tactic he may persist with, especially against teams with dangerous attacking right-backs.
But how many orthodox wingers can Capello afford to take? Assuming Walcott goes as an option for either up front or from the flank, Joe Cole offers similar versatility, and if both are fit and have games under their belts, they will be almost certainly on the plane. Two other wide players is probably enough as back-up and it would be sensible to take players that have different attributes.
Milner is the obvious choice for his work rate and balance, and then for some attacking flair Capello has the choice between Young, Lennon, Downing and Wright-Phillips for a probable single spot with Beckham as a complete wild-card selection. At the moment Lennon would appear to be the front-runner, but with a lot of football to be played before the finals, the opportunity is there for players to stake their claims.
The worry is that there is a distinct lack of quality throughout the options. We all know about Beckham and he has done it regularly in the big games both for club and country down the years, but he will be 35 when the tournament begins and won’t be a realistic pick for the team. Lennon, Wright-Phillips and Young have all shown flashes of genuine quality and all have real, searing pace, but all are quite similar, and none are likely to cause the managers of Germany, Brazil, Italy and Spain any lack of sleep.
Only one of the players I’ve talked about has proven he can change games from the bench at international level and that is Beckham. Despite the American adventure, despite his age, despite the beard, despite the asthma, despite the media furore that always surrounds him…Beckham remains a player that England can’t do without. Capello will have to take him to South Africa.