After months of qualifiers, rainy evenings at the Reebok and shitting ourselves every time Rooney looks a bit queasy, South Africa 2010 is all but upon us. Tickets have been booked, pubs readied and 3D-glasses dusted-off for the first time since 1984, and I, for one, am more than a little bit excited. This joyous happening does, however, have one rather perplexing by-product, one that reared its head a few weeks ago on URN’s Football Show. As the discussion drifted towards thoughts of the summer, I asked my co-presenter: “So, who’s your money on, then?” His reply was almost inevitable: “England.” Oh, god. This again? Really? We went through this four years ago, when Gerrard, Lampard and Terry were all in their prime and look where that got us. However, his rationale echoed a growing feeling in this country. “One reason,” he continued, “Fabio Capello.”
Now, before I continue I’d like to make one thing clear, Fabio Capello is a world-class manager. He has changed the mentality of the England Team unquestionably for the better, and has righted many of the pedestrian failings of the ‘Shteve’ McClaren tenure and his provisional 30-man squad is almost perfect (with one notable scouse exception). I am also an Englishman, and I love my team dearly, and that wonderful feeling that, at least for 90 minutes, we are all in the same boat, regardless of club loyalties and tensions. But my problem with my mate’s argument is that England’s problems haven’t been eradicated, just altered.
To prove this, we just have to look at the potential starting eleven (injuries permitting) for the June 12th date with the Americans: Green, Johnson, Terry, A. Cole, Lennon, Lampard, Barry, Gerrard, Rooney, Heskey. With the exception of the unfortunately injured Ferdinand, this is the team that Capello stuck by throughout the qualification campaign, and whilst it is an eleven that won their group in style, the goalposts move when they are to be compared with Spain, Brazil and Argentina, rather than Croatia, Belarus and Ukraine. The first issue arises with injuries, and whilst there is no way of knowing how players will fair in the remaining weeks before the tournament, two of the most important elements of Capello’s system have little more than a handful of games to get back up to speed. Both Ashley Cole and Aaron Lennon, each in scintillating form prior to their knocks, need to be on-song for this eleven to work. Were either or both of these players to miss out, Capello’s recent selections have suggested that their replacements would be anything but risk-free. Were Shaun Wright-Philips to take Lennon’s place on the right of midfield, the team would be left with a winger whose performances in an England shirt have been patchy, at best, and who has recently found himself warming the Eastlands bench, thanks to Adam Johnson. With Johnson and Walcott watching the world cup from their living rooms, Capello is surely tempting fate by banking on Lennon’s body not to give way, let alone his lack of match fitness.
That is the first problem. The second is Capello’s persistent selection, despite promises otherwise, of players who are out of form. If we start with an easy target, Emile Heskey should definitely not be in this team, and Peter Crouch definitely should. I do understand that modern football is a balancing act, and if (God willing) Rooney starts, then there needs to be a big man next to him to act as the aerial threat from long-balls and set-plays. Heskey is a talented player, who will hold the ball, play it short to the more creative players and seek them out when the ball’s put near his head. However, his ability to score goals is what a diplomat would call suspect and a football fan would call abysmal, and it is goals, after all, that win football matches, not excellent cushion-headers. Crouch, on the other hand, has scored 20 goals in his 37 appearances (compared to Heskey’s 7 in 57), and his short-passing and close-control more than make up for Heskey’s superior strength, particularly when teamed with his five-inch height advantage. Crucially, though, Crouch scores against the smaller teams, the average teams, the ones that England inevitably struggle to break down (Trinidad and Tobago 2006, anyone?). And yet, Capello sticks with Heskey, and whilst he has a job to do and he will inevitably give all that he can for the team, I genuinely feel that more is added to the team when Crouch starts than is lost when Heskey doesn’t. Like I said, a balancing act.
Heskey is by no means alone, though. In spite of an exceptional season for Birmingham City, Joe Hart remains on the bench as Rob Green, a man who has conceded 19 more goals than him this season, proudly picks up the number 1 jersey. Even the ever-reliable Steven Gerrard has been, whisper it, a shadow of his former self at times this season, as Liverpool have floundered their way down the league, all with an abject Jamie Carragher at the heart of their defence (if you’re going to pull someone out of retirement, at least pick someone who hasn’t had the worst season of their career).
The biggest issue that arises from these problems is that Capello’s persistence in picking these out-of-form players, even in meaningless friendlies, has left little or no time to bed-in any potential replacements. Regardless of how they have been playing, it looks as though, injuries permitting, we’re stuck with them.
It’s such a shame too, as there is now little indication that the smaller names that have excelled this season will be given their deserved international recognition. Michael Dawson will, most likely, end-up as the fourth-choice centre-half at best. On the left of midfield, Adam Johnson has proven his Premiership quality since his January move from Middlesbrough, yet failed to make the final 23 and Joe Cole has impressed since his return after a long injury lay-off, yet Capello it seems is still unsure of his best position. It is possible to drop Gerrard. The world won’t end if he isn’t crow-barred into a position that doesn’t suit him. He isn’t a left-winger, he’s a central midfielder, one that is currently not as good as Frank Lampard, and, in the same way that David James and Joe Hart can’t play together, a choice has to be made between them, we should know by now that we can’t have our cake and eat it.
The fact is that we can argue until we’re blue in the face about team-selection, tactics, preparation and everything in between, but at 6:30 on Saturday the 12th of June, even the most analytical English mind will find itself screaming those three familiar words at whichever eleven men are dressed in white as the whistle blows in Rustenburg.