Following the two impressive friendly results at the beginning of the month over current World and European champions Spain, as well as Sweden, coupled with the encouraging performances of Phil Jones and Kyle Walker (as well as cameos from Daniels Welbeck and Sturridge, as well as Jack Rodwell) many journalists were tripping over themselves with praise for Capello’s men – some even heralding a new ‘Golden generation’ of players to come through the production line. This, of course, is typical of the British media and public and is quite frankly a load of shit.
Whilst ostensibly the two results are good, the performances in the two games (barring dazzling performances in both games from Scott Parker, Joleon Lescott and the aforementioned Jones and Walker) belied the results that were achieved. Against Spain we were on the backfoot for the vast majority of the game and although we defended stoutly, we barely mustered a shot on goal, relying on a set piece to create our goal. Even then, it became apparent immediately after we scored that Spain had numerous other gears to go up through as they pushed for an equaliser that ultimately came. Similarly against Sweden, we ground out an unimaginative, unimpressive and thoroughly uninteresting draw against a lacklustre Swedish side. Admittedly the side was far from the strongest that Fabio could have put out and lacked continuity from the previous match.
The personnel was not the real issue here though, it was the system. The shape is not the real issue either, 4-5-1 is the most fashionable formation in most top level football now and for good reason; it allows for great versatility and for flexibility depending on whether your side is attacking or defending. What was most worrying and, for me at least, was the cause of the disappointment was the brand of football we chose to play. Everytime we picked the ball up in and around the halfway line, we would travel 5 yards in the opposition’s half, play a square ball, then play to the centre halves and then back to the goalkeeper. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat.
I’m all for retaining possession of the ball and causing the opposition to tire in their attempts to reclaim it, but it is all about playing with the ball in the right areas of the pitch. The brilliance of a side like Barcelona who play a similar ball retention style is that they choose to do so in the opposition’s third of the pitch. Here, they can strategically maneuver the ball across their midfield, dragging tired players out of possession allowing them to play the ball between the lines. In our feeble attempts to do this, all we achieve is causing the opponent’s striker to trot 10 yards either side of the pitch to press the centre back into looking for his goal keeper. Whilst this cautious approach is fine in an undoubtedly tight game like that against Spain, it is concerning in a match against Sweden. There was no real urgency from England to play the ball forward and to assert some kind of dominance over the opposition. It is a real shame that we do not choose to make more of our prowess on the counter attack – it is not as if there is a dearth of pace in the side, with Walcott, Glen Johnson and Darren Bent all on the pitch against Sweden. What it really shows from Capello is a lack of ambition to dismantle lesser sides, showing perhaps a little too much respect for teams that are substantially weaker than ours.
Still, the two friendlies produced positive results, so it is difficult to complain too much. It gave Capello an opportunity to assess the players he has at his disposal whilst he begins to cast an eye towards selecting his 23 for Poland/Ukraine next summer. For my money, this is how I see things:
Joe Hart is a nailed down certainty barring a serious injury. Beyond this, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of competition; recently Britain’s most recent export to Turkey, Scott Carson has made squads, along with David Stockdale of Fulham (on loan at Ipswich). Other contenders I guess are Robert Green and perhaps if they find some real form before the end of the season and can be coaxed out of retirement, Ben Foster and Paul Robinson
Doesn’t really appear to be too many decisions for Fabio to be making here, apart from his wealth of talent at right back. Assuming fitness, I imagine the 4 central defenders will be Terry, Jagielka, Lescott and Ferdinand (out of some misguided sentiment of obligation) although I would be much more inclined to take Gary Cahill, who has performed nothing but solidly when called upon, above Rio. Left backs would be the stalwart Ashley Cole and, certainly based on his current form, Leighton Baines, the latter of which I would be sorely tempted to start ahead of Cole due to the more potent attacking threat he poses. Now for the problematic right back slot. Capello inexplicably doesn’t seem to rate Micah Richards (who knows why, the man has been in terrific form all season for City), so it looks like a straight shoot out between Johnson, Walker, Jones and Smalling for 2 slots here. I imagine that Jones will be selected on the basis of his versatility and Johnson seems to be the man in possession of the shirt, so to speak so that is how I imagine Fabio will choose. Still, there is room for Smalling and Walker to assert themselves throughout the rest of the season and to give Mr Capello a serious headache. I’d personally take Richards and Jones.
Once again, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of slots to be playing for here chaps. If he just chose Scott Parker and let him play there by himself he’d do perfectly well. Chances are this isn’t going to happen, so Lampard, Barry and Milner will all also be selected to fill in the central midfield berths. I would be reticent to select the first two in my starting line up as they are most definitely on their way out of the national team picture, but Capello seems to favour Barry in particular and will most likely select these two. One of the slots playing on the wing will be taken by Theo Walcott and as for the others, I would venture that Stewart Downing and Ashley Young are the certainly in possession of a place at this point, with Downing impressing against Sweden and performing consistently for Liverpool. Depending on the make-up of Capello’s squad (9 midfielders and 4 strikers, or 8 and 5?) that leaves a variety of players vying for either one or two places. Does a full fit Gerrard automatically warrant a place in the squad? 6 months ago, Jack Wilshere looked a nailed on certainty but will he recover from his injury entirely and rediscover that form in time to be in contention? A similar question could be posed of the likes of Aaron Lennon. And what about Adam Johnson? He definitely offers something a little different to the other wingers, but is he playing enough football to justify his inclusion? Or does he opt for youth, going with the likes of Jack Rodwell and Jordan Henderson?(My squad would consist of: Parker, Lampard, Barry, Wilshere (if he can find form), Milner, Young, Walcott, Downing, Johnson)
Given Mr Rooney’s petulance, there is most definitely plenty to play for here. Despite his irresponsibility, Capello will pick the moron. If he is not careful, there is a strong possibility that Rooney could go through his career without actually starting more than two games at a tournament for England. In addition to Rooney, Darren Bent is the only other striker I would suggest is a certainty. This is the most difficult area of the pitch to call at this point in time and I hope that Capello makes his selection based on form come the end of the season, hoping that the form players will be able to carry this on into the tournament. I’d suggest that this tournament could possibly come to soon for Danny Welbeck and Danny Sturridge, although there is potentially room for one of them. What Capello needs to ensure with his striker selection is that he provides himself with enough variety in style, so that he can bring players off the bench or start certain players to match up favourably against the range of opponents we will undoubtedly come up against. The main players in contention to join Rooney and Bent seem to be Bent’s Villa colleague Gabby Agbonlahor, the lamentably unappreciated Bobby Zamora. Perhaps we could see the return to the England foray for Jermain Defoe or Peter Crouch if they can both spark something of a renaissance at their respective clubs. However, although they haven’t really ever been given a fair crack, they have failed to produce at major tournaments in their sporadic appearances, so it would be encouraging to see Capello opt for some fresh faces. With form playing a big role in selection here, who knows, perhaps even Andy Carroll can force his way into contention with some scintillating performances for Liverpool between now and the end of the season? I’ll get my coat…
It is most certainly an open question and I will check back come the time of the games in order to see how my predicition lines up with Fabio’s.