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Notes On England

Posted by Seamus Walsh on June 19, 2010

Seeing as I’m English, and there is still a chance South Korea could have to play England in the Quarter Finals of the World Cup, I thought I’d offer some thoughts on their absolutely abysmal start to this competition.

England manager Fabio Capello has done well in general. As he said when he first came into the job in 2008, his biggest and most important task was to restore some confidence to the players, and he managed to do that during the World Cup qualifiers. England scored a lot of goals, although they never looked as comfortable on the ball as the top sides – but then again no England side ever has over the last few decades. It did seem, however, that Capello’s England was a lot stronger then any England side had been in a long time.

England looked vibrant and impressive in the qualifiers

Part of the problems that we’ve now seen emerging in this World Cup, however, seems to be that England have a team full of players who are outstanding as one-man footballing weapons. For their clubs the other players get the ball to them, they do something special. They’re the pinnacles for their respective clubs, but put them together and they seem to cancel each other out. They need a few more players who do the simple things very well, players who can control, pass and move at pace and with accuracy.

Despite that, should it really be beyond players who have done the amazing things we’ve seen from them for their clubs, fitting brilliantly into their teams, to pass the ball accurately to each other? They absolutely have to be able to keep the ball and move the opposition around the pitch a bit. They do not need to look to make the killer ball every time they win possession.

On top of that, the final few warm up friendlies before the start of the tournament were pretty abysmal. With those performances against Mexico, Japan and the local South African side Platinum Stars, all of the confidence that Capello had rebuilt during qualification was lost. That just showed how fragile it must have been, and I’m not sure Capello could have known that would be the case. Perhaps he should have just played the same team that played so regularly in the qualifiers – more of the same – and perhaps the team would not have been the one everyone else seems to want to pick (Gerrard behind Rooney), but if they could have carried on from where they left off then the players would surely not have diminished once again to the fragile shadows of their regular selves that we’re seeing now.

The performance and the body language was very different from England against Algeria

Also, it might perhaps have been wise to have used players who were in good form for their clubs during the season when they first started demonstrating that form. When goalkeeper Joe Hart was playing regularly and well for Birmingham, he could have been introduced to the national team then and there. If he’d have played well there’d be no dispute over the first choice goalkeeper up to and even during the World Cup. Darren Bent is another example. People criticise him for his apparent poor form for England, but how many chances has he had? Heskey, Crouch and Defoe have all had plenty of opportunities to play and train with Rooney. Bent has only been given 6 caps for England, and he’s been thrown in and expected to reproduce his goal-scoring club form. Surprisingly, he hasn’t. If he’d been included at least in the squad from an earlier stage when he was consistently scoring in the league then perhaps he’d be better able to reproduce at England level and form a decent partnership based on some mutual understanding with Rooney.

Capello has made his choices, however, and fiercely defended them. Now he has his hardest ever choice to make – stick or twist. He’d built up this England team from nervous, underperforming individuals into a confident, goal scoring team. His formation and player/squad selections had, until recently, performed as required virtually faultlessly. It all came tumbling down in the warm up friendlies – not against the US or Algeria – and now he has to react.

Does he persist with the selections of formation and lineup that had previously served him well or change his ways, going against everything he’s argued for up until now. In making that decision I hope he takes into account the fact that the clubs England’s best players play for have altered their formations to correspond to developments across the global game. With Barcelona being so successful with their flowing passing style and (formerly) rather rare 4-3-3 formation, and Europe’s other great sides following suit with lone strikers and versatile attacking wide men, the likes of Rooney, Gerrard, Lampard and even Lennon have found their niche at club level.

Rooney had an outstanding season as a lone striker for Manchester United

Ferguson decided Rooney was best suited to being played as a lone front man being supported by a hard-working creator behind him and pacy wingers providing constant crosses and options when Rooney has to hold up the ball. Gerrard became that hard-working creator behind a lone front man at Liverpool, and Lampard did something similar, linking Chelsea’s midfield with their striker(s). The only person who as yet does not seem to have reacted to these international developments is Capello. How many teams play 4-4-2 these days? Admittedly, it suits some teams, but how many of the teams doing best so far at the World Cup or in Europe this season play such a formation? I would say none.

Capello should be brave now. Things change, in football as in everything else, and Capello should not feel that he has to live and die by his choices made previously. They served him well at the time. He should now accept that he must live and die by his decisions in the moment. If he decides to change things now, does he look weak? Does the image of authority and serene intelligence and tactical know-how slip if he decides to change a team that’s playing itself out of the World Cup? No. It would be far braver and I argue far more intelligent for him to alter his formation and tactics, to free up England’s best attacking players to play the way they do naturally, as they do for their clubs. There are some outstanding players in the squad, they don’t need to be shackled by rigid tactics and tactical commitments that they are not used to and that go against their natural inclinations. Moreover, if he is convinced that Gerrard and Lampard cannot both play together centrally for England (I see no reason why that would be the case based on recent performances when they have done so) then he always has the option to drop one of them.

One thing that stands out about Capello’s approach to the England job so far has been his conservatism. He’s picked an incredibly experienced and, let’s face it, old squad for this tournament. And yet there is no great lack of talented younger players in England. Perhaps some of those players, James Milner, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Ashley Young, Tom Huddlestone, Micah Richards, Lee Cattermole, Michael Dawson, Adam Johnson, Joe Hart, Darren Bent and so on should have been given more opportunities earlier on. Those among them who have played have had few chances, but have always looked promising, passionate and hungry. They haven’t been tainted by the apparent failures of past campaigns, they all play fantastically well for their clubs. Most importantly, perhaps, the likes of Algeria, Mexico and Chile have all shown in this World Cup that you don’t need the most famous stars playing in order to be successful. Also, for Germany their young playmaker Mesut Ozil is not the most well-known player in the squad but he has so far been the best, Elia has done similar for the Netherlands and Navas for Spain. Perhaps Capello should have given far more opportunities to these sorts of young, hungry players to show that they can be better for the team than the famous individual stars.

One final point that seems to have surfaced since the start of the World Cup is that the England camp does not appear to be entirely harmonious. Capello has been acting even more brusquely and evasively than usual in his interviews, he’s shouted at the media, the players were angered on safari and now David James – one of only two England players along with Ashley Cole to have not played badly against Algeria – appears to have confirmed that the players are not completely happy with Capello’s methods and approach. If I was to guess at what exactly they are unhappy with I would say the formation, as discussed above, as well as the fact that Capello only names his starting lineup two hours before kickoff. It’s an unusual ploy, and one that seems to be backfiring.

Time for change. A change in formation, but also a change from the players. I’ve questioned some of Capello’s decisions here, and his lack of decision following poor warm up friendlies and opening games in the World Cup, but nothing can hide the fact that it was the players who underperformed on the pitch. Capello has a fantastic record as a manager, but it is the English players playing for England in the end who have to improve every facet of their mentality and their performance following the Algeria game.

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