Following yesterday’s disappointing 1-1 draw against the USA at Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, England manager Fabio Capello certainly has a full plate to deal with before England’s next Group C game against Algeria on Friday at GreenPoint Stadium in CapeTown. To date, the Italian maestro has had an almost flawless record following a brilliant World Cup Qualifying campaign which saw England score a record number of goals which definitely projected them into that small elite of teams that are “possible World Cup winners. That was 9 months ago…
Let me start out by saying that I am a huge Capello fan. I was elated that the FA chose a man with his track record of winning trophies and coupled with the fact that he is an accomplished tactician and man manager, it seemed, to me at least, that if we are to ever win the World Cup, now might be the time. I have even stated on other blogs that I felt he was our best manager since Bobby Robson, and some people disagreed with that opinion, but he definitely has the pedigree. Let me also say that after one game, I am not about to change that view and start waving the flag for his sacking, but there is no doubt that Capello and England have a huge task ahead of them starting on Friday.
There were many positives that emerged from yesterday’s game not least the form of newly elected captain Steven Gerrard. Back to his Anfield rampaging best, he led his nation with passion and drive and no little skill exemplified from his coolly taken goal just 4 minutes into the battle. Glen Johnson, so widely criticized for his defensive frailties, had a solid game and was a constant threat to the USA down the right flank. He didn’t have a lot to do at the back but was reliable when called upon. Gerrard and Lampard also combined well at times to confirm that they really can play together for England. Emile Heskey was a surprise choice up front but proved a constant thorn in the side of Onyewu and DeMerit at the center of the USA defense. They created a lot of chances, a few of which should have been converted given any kind of good fortune, so all is not gloom and doom for the Three Lions. Also, one thing that has been ignored in some parts of the English media, is that this USA team are no mugs. They are industrious, well organized, well coached, never give up, and have a potent threat up front in Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. Tim Howard is probably in the top 6 or 7 goalies at the tournament and this team is hard to beat. Just ask Spain and Brazil.
Another ray of sunlight was the performances of both Slovenia and Algeria in today’s other Group C game. Neither one of these sides showed anything that would, at first glance, concern Capello as both teams struggled to play any type of quality football. But, as we all know, sometimes England’s stiffest opposition is themselves rather than the team at the other end of the field.
However, where there is good, there is also bad, and some of that manifested itself before kick-off yesterday with Capello’s line-up. The goalkeeping position has been a constant source of debate throughout the preparations for this tournament. Capello has refused to name his starter, in this case leaving it until 2 hours prior to kick-off. We all know that none of the three candidates have proved themselves to be the undisputed starter. Gone are the days of Gordon Banks, Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence. Goalkeepers are strange animals. they are unique on a soccer team. A result can rest on one single mistake or save, and yesterday was obviously proof of that. My eldest son played goalkeeper on a side that had a rotational policy for it’s keepers and none of the three ever felt confident out on the field. My choice for this tournament was Joe Hart, who is in the best form. I don’t think anyone really knows who Capello’s choice really is as David James apparently had a troubling knee which made him unavailable for the game yesterday.
The choice of James Milner was also puzzling as he hadn’t been taking part in training after coming down with a virus. You could see he wasn’t 100% out there, hence Capello’s move to yank him out in favor of Shawn Wright-Phillips. Emile Heskey, despite his creditable performance, has had an awful season at Aston Villa and has never, throughout his career, ever been a proven goalscorer. Yesterday, he had a golden opportunity to put England ahead after being sent clear by Lennon on a breakaway but, of course, shot straight at Tim Howard. I would have started with Peter Crouch who has a great goalscoring record for England and still provides that big target that Capello likes to use with Wayne Rooney.
Once the game got going, England started magnificently with a classic goal from Steven Gerrard and it looked as if they had come out to play. However, as the game progressed, it was clear that still, the movement and the passing was poor, and the constant 30-40 yard long balls bypassing the midfield, brought back memories of Mexico and Japan. The goalkeeping error from Robert Green is part of the game. Anyone remember Peter Bonetti and David Seaman ? But how much of that was due to his lack of confidence from not knowing if he would start or not. I still would replace him for Algeria but only because I felt Hart should be there to start with.
The lack of pace in the middle of defense is scary. King is obviously not the first choice but was the natural successor to Rio Ferdinand. Now that he is injured with a groin strain and unlikely to figure against Algeria, who now takes up the torch in the middle with John Terry ? Jamie Carragher’s lack of speed was plain for all to see as he was skinned by Jozy Altidore in the second half which nearly cost England a second goal. Matthew Upson hasn’t played a minute since West Ham’s season ended, and Michael Dawson hasn’t even pulled on an England shirt yet. Our full backs are OK for now with Ashley Cole in the top 3 players at that position in the world, and Glen Johnson, with fingers crossed, will create more attacking options than defensive howlers.
There’s no doubt that England will improve slightly once Gareth Barry comes back fit, but no announcement has been made to that end yet, so for me, Joe Cole is the starter. He has the drive and industry shown by Gerrard to get England going and can score goals too. Yesterday, Lennon and Wright-Phillips had fair games but both looked lacking inside the box. Wayne Rooney was a major disappointment yesterday and as a Man Utd fan, I recognized some of the signs that he was feeling frustrated. His habit of dropping back deeper and deeper into midfield is a sign that he’s not getting enough quality ball up front, and consequently his threat as a goalscorer is reduced. He hasn’t scored in an England shirt for over a year now which is very worrying for fans, players and coaches alike.
Lastly, I have to make a comment about where I see this team going. I have always felt that we would advance through to the knockout stages but where we go from there is where I depart from the common view. Many observers including the manager himself, have forecast that England will reach the semi final stage. I haven’t seen a thing that suggests that will be the case. Their energy and movement is almost non-existent at times and a small cameo from yesterday’s game illustrates my point. Ashley Cole had a throw-in to take in his own half during the final 10 minutes or so. He stood there for a full 30-45 seconds trying to find someone to throw to and NOT ONE PLAYER was moving for him. That is football 101. Our passing is error strewn and inconsistent and our long ball attempts from the back are laughable. Does anyone think that Ferguson, Ancelotti, or Wenger would tolerate the number of 30-40 yard aimless balls played down the center. We had two players out there who fall into the old classic category of “wingers” in Lennon and Wright-Phillips and yet we chose at times to ignore them in favor of hitting Heskey with a barrage of aerial “hail Marys”. We are so predictable at times and. with the new Jabulani ball, teams will learn that long passes just don’t work at this tournament. It appears that any success that we have at this World Cup will rely on flashes of individual brilliance rather than exceptional team performances.
It frankly pains me to talk in these terms about my home country but I think since I started to write about this sport of ours, I have become more objective, and being an ex-pat living in the USA, somewhat insulated from the smokescreen of “we’ll play better next time”. I think we have an over inflated opinion of how good we really are, and we fall into the trap of looking at the names on the teamsheet without looking at the performances.
Fabio, next time is in CapeTown, on Friday…………………….