England once again played very poorly, yet somehow came away with a win against a much more sprightly Japan side. They’ll probably still top Group C just by virtue of the fact that, man for man, they are comfortably the best team in the group. This was also true of the qualification process and will continue, for the time being, to mask problems the team have.
Steven Gerrard cutting in from the left unbalances the side; it provides space for Ashley Cole to attack, but it leads to someone (Gareth Barry) needing to cover the left flank, which creates space in the middle of the field. With three in the middle of the park becoming the norm nowadays, England will lose the midfield battle against better teams if they persist with just the central midfield pair (recent evidence of this from the friendly against Brazil in November- they had no control of the midfield at all).
Wayne Rooney seems exasperated at almost all times when playing for England; he will drop off deep to get the ball, but ends up going nowhere with it because he has no decent option available to him. He’s just not getting the movement and support he’s used to from his midfield, partly because with two in the centre they need to be more cautious about going forward. What doesn’t help is that whoever Rooney’s strike partner will be (Heskey, Crouch or Defoe), they are just not of the same calibre; none of them are top-class players.
Unless the long balls are going to be pinged to Crouch or Heskey with absolute pinpoint accuracy, then England should abandon playing with a second striker- all of the potentials are limited in their physical or mental capacities of the game. Of course, if we had two Wayne Rooneys, playing two up front would probably be the way to go.
I have little faith in England’s ability to progress past any of their major competitors at the tournament (Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, France, Italy), chiefly because they seem to lack potency going forward (without Rooney firing on all cylinders it’s a struggle to see them breaking through the better defences) and they’ll be fighting a man short in midfield against most of those sides. A bit late in the day, but after the disastrous warm-up games, I would advocate a switch to 4-3-3:
Of course, Lady Luck could keep smiling on England just as she did against Japan last Sunday, and that would be just fine with me.
Capello’s Final 23
Unsurprisingly, I am disappointed with his final selection. Not in respect of Theo Walcott’s omission, however – he has the potential to be a far more dangerous player than Shaun Wright-Phillips, but he very rarely produces it. Fabio has clearly decided that it’s not worth risking one of his 23 spots on a player who will only produce once every 10 or so times he has the ball in his possession. And by produce, I don’t even necessarily mean do something amazing – just doing the correct, simple things. I think the Japan game was the final nail in his coffin; my main gripe with Walcott is that his mental game is not up to scratch (although I think his technique at times leaves a fair bit to be desired as well), but he had impressed me with Arsenal this season by, slowly, becoming more sensible when in possession of the ball. This went completely out of the window when playing against Japan; it was just head down and run. Although I would have taken him instead of SWP for the impact he could have, I don’t really have any gripes with him being left at home.
I’m more disappointed with the inclusions of Matthew Upson and Michael Carrick and the omissions of Scott Parker and Michael Dawson, who were sent packing without even being given a chance to show what they can do. Why include them in the provisional squad if they’re not going to be used? Upson is not international quality; do a quick survey of 20 football fans down your local pub, I’d guess maybe two would be in favour of Upson going to the World Cup. Dawson is a better defender and has had a much better season. Scott Parker has had a very good season and is exactly the sort of ball-winning midfielder England need in the absence of Owen Hargreaves; Gareth Barry does a very competent job of mopping up, but Parker has that verve and workmanlike energy that I think the midfield is missing. At the very least, the option should be there. Carrick doesn’t bring much to the table- he can pass the ball around nicely, when he’s got time, but has little else going for him apart from that; he featured far less during United’s run-in than he would have liked, but I find it telling that at the crucial moments Sir Alex did not turn to him.