Shearer and Sheringham, Shearer and Owen, Rooney and Owen. These are all great England strike partnerships from major tournaments of recent years, but the situation as we see it now is not as clear as it was a few years ago. A fit Wayne Rooney to start is a given but since the decline in form and stature of Michael Owen, finding a strike partner for the former Everton man is becoming increasingly difficult.
In terms of formation, die hard England fans categorically insist on 4-4-2, as this is the way we have always played and to some form of success, most notably in Euro 96 with the aforementioned SAS combination. The problem is that the game has moved on so much since then and we as a nation do tend to be found wanting in terms of tactics against the top sides. Having said that Spain won Euro 2008 playing that formation, but then they did have the combination of Torres and Villa upfront, something that any side in the world would relish. Numerous Premier League sides are currently playing a 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation, most notably Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool, with two wide men and a single striker. This allows attacking prowess and depending on the work rate of the wide men, a very solid defensive base. Midfielders such as Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Michael Carrick are all used to playing in this system week in, week out and forwards such as Wayne Rooney, Joe Cole and Theo Walcott all have the ability to play through the middle and on either flank. This would provide a fluidity and interchangeability not always associated with the England team.
In this writer’s opinion, football purists would relish an England team playing in this nature with the three aforementioned forwards playing an integral part. We haven’t really seen this from Fabio Capello as yet in what has been a very successful qualifying campaign so far, so it is quite unlikely that he’ll change the formation in this manner before the tournament. Another decision which is proving successful for the Head Coach at the moment is the combination of Rooney and Emile Heskey together as the striking duo. The so called “big man up front” does have its advantages in this team. It releases Rooney in more of a free-role and allows him to link the play from midfield enabling him to affect the way England play from a much deeper position – this is how most fans want to see Rooney playing, facing the opposition goal, not having the hold it up with this back to goal. Heskey also provides an aerial threat enabling quick players such as Walcott to run onto flick-ons whilst also providing a threat from crosses into the box and if Beckham makes the squad this is something that we can really use to our advantage.
However, it isn’t always the best kind of football to watch and none of the midfielders in the squad are used to playing in a system like this. Heskey isn’t getting any younger and it may be touch and go as to whether he will actually make the squad if his injury problems from this past campaign continue. If he does make the squad and the starting eleven, some may view this as somewhat short-sighted and although it has achieved some success in big games, most notably against Russia at Wembley, it doesn’t really fill you with confidence in high profile World Cup games. Most England fans would be surprised to see us win the World Cup with a man who has never quite fulfilled early promise and whose goal scoring record for England is really not good enough. He does bring a lot of positives with his style of play but success in major tournaments is often dependant on a top quality no. 9 – Heskey is not this.
Judging by Capello’s previous decisions in his short tenure as England manager, he does seem to favour the little and large combination. Something that he does not seem to always favour is playing Peter Crouch – the Portsmouth striker being the obvious option for a big man if Heskey does not play. In fact Crouch has only started once for England under Capello in the game against Ukraine at Wembley and as is usual for the lanky striker in an England shirt, he did find the net. His goal scoring record for England is impressive but he has claimed a lot of goals against weaker opposition and it is in doubt as to whether he has the class to take on some of the better teams that will be present in South Africa. If England is to make an impression on the tournament they really need players who are proven at the highest level – whether Crouch is that is up for debate.
The England squad has an embarrassment of riches in certain areas, central midfield springing immediately to mind, but the central striking position is not one of these. The strikers in the squad, bar Rooney, do not pick themselves. There are English strikers scoring goals consistently in the Premier League, such as Jermaine Defoe and Gabriel Agbonlahor but neither of them are proven internationals. It is for this sole reason that so much of the attacking impetus falls on the shoulders of the young man from Merseyside.
Defoe is a good Premier League striker having scored very regularly for West Ham, Tottenham and Portsmouth. His England record is reasonable, but he has never quite lit up the International stage in the way that it was hoped he would do, even missing out on the squad in 2006. He should make the final cut this time around but it is more likely to be as a squad member who will be doubtful to start but may have hopes of a late goal coming off the bench. He really needs to have an exceptional season for both club and country to stand any chance of making the starting line up for the Three Lions’ opener in South Africa. Meanwhile, Agbonlahor is an exciting prospect, combining great pace with a good eye for goal. He is consistently improving for Aston Villa each season but he has had limited chances under Capello. He is young and although he is first choice for Villa it is in doubt as to whether he has the maturity and experience to be effective for the national team in a major tournament.
The discussion concerning the England forward line always seems to fall back to one name, Wayne Rooney. It is no coincidence that when England have failed in the last two major tournaments it has been in the game when Rooney has been forced off the pitch, once by injury and once by his own stupidity. When he does not play he is missed more than any other player. The debate is a long running one – where do we play him to get the best out of him? This writer is a big fan of playing with three forwards and Rooney’s versatility does lend him well to this – he had been sublime towards the end of the season for Manchester United playing in an advanced role of the left side. This was helped by the fact that the other forwards making up the front three could be anything from Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Dimitar Berbatov. England simply does not have this kind of embarrassment of riches. As previously mentioned England does have three players who can fit well into this formation but Cole and Walcott do not have the same attacking threat through the middle as those at Manchester United. It would be a fear that he would become isolated in this formation for England as opposition defences would know that Rooney is the main focal point, unlike the way his club play.
In the first England game under the Capello regime Rooney was the sole striker with Gerrard playing behind him, but this is more of a way to accommodate Gerrard and Lampard than a system that will get the best out of Rooney. The Italian was criticised for this somewhat negative move, but then prior to the Ukraine game fans and press alike were calling for the same tactics following the