Fabio Capello’s appointment as England Head Coach in January 2008 signalled the dawn of a new no-nonsense regime for the Three Lions under a Coach who cares little for names and reputations. The eras of Steve McClaren and Sven Goran Eriksson were dogged by alleged favouritism and an inflexibility to play the best team if it meant dropping the biggest names. There is no clearer example of this than the Steven Gerrard-Frank Lampard quandary that England’s two previous Head Coaches failed to resolve, a dilemma Capello has now inherited as the experienced Italian looks to stamp his mark on the current England side.
Capello has numerous options in the midfield area and in his first year in charge he has set about experimenting with different systems and players. England’s last few outings have witnessed Gerrard deployed on the left with Lampard and Gareth Barry partnered in the two central positions. Tottenham winger Aaron Lennon and Arsenal flyer Theo Walcott have both had opportunities on the right but while England have been winning, the midfield set-up has been far from steady. Gerrard remains arguably England’s best player, despite continuously failing to transfer his club form on to the international stage. Questions have been raised regarding the player himself but is he a victim of a non-compatible midfield line-up, or have England turned a tactical corner?
Recent performances have seen England set up in the traditional 4-4-2 formation, listing Lennon, Walcott or David Beckham on the right wing and Gerrard placed on the left. However, the recent displays against Kazakhstan and most recently Andorra in England’s World Cup 2010 Group Six qualifiers have seen slight variations on the set-up as the games kicked off. Whilst the right-wing is dominated by Messrs Walcott and Lennon, Gerrard’s role has seen him often deployed more as a third central midfielder, with Lampard and Barry (Beckham having also deputised) shifting slightly over, almost creating a three-man midfield and an attack-minded right-winger. This system has worked extremely well, playing to a number of strengths the first-choice XI has – Ashley Cole is given licence to bomb down the left wing, Wayne Rooney up top as been allowed to drop off in the free space vacated on the left and link up with both Gerrard and target man Peter Crouch to brutal effect in front of goal, the vulnerable right-back position has been protected by doubling up and all the time, Gerrard and Lampard have barely stepped on each others toes. The 4-5-1 formation used in some of Capello’s earlier games in charge had a similar affect, seemingly knocking the Gerrard-Lampard conundrum on its head.
However, in games against lesser opposition, tactics are always going to be slightly less defined as the players find more space in front of them and more than the usual route open to goal. Against tougher opposition – which England will be expected to perform against come the build up to and duration of South Africa 2010 – Capello’s disciplinarian style may effect change, and affect Gerrard the most. To counter the possession play of countries such as Spain, Brazil and Italy, England will need strict positional sense and awareness and if Capello opts for four men across the park, Gerrard will either have to like it or lump it on the left. Sadly, the Liverpool skipper is not a left-sided midfielder, and when Chelsea’s Joe Cole is back fit and available, it is likely that the former West Ham man could reclaim the slot he has made his own over the past four years. Cole’s form for England since the last World Cup has probably been more consistent than any other. If Cole does come back to recapture the sort of form he showed prior to his spate of injuries, it would be reasonable to assume that Gerrard would be switched over to the right. Whilst Lennon and Walcott have offered pace and energy down the right, both have lacked the required instincts and efficiency in delivering final balls for the front-men. Gerrard’s ability to play almost anywhere across the midfield and still affect play to some extent is a strong attribute but could also be his downfall.
In the central midfield positions there does seem to be a genuine problem. Lampard’s international form has been mixed ever since Euro 2004 whilst Barry has impressed on some occasions and struggled to dominate on others. Both these players have been in splendid form for their clubs in the previous two seasons but the narrow win over Ukraine at Wembley in early April did not cement either’s place in the new-look England midfield. The Ukrainians saw plenty of the ball while Barry and Lampard looked somewhat devoid of ideas – culminating in a lack of service for wingers and strikers alike as England created little against an average side.
Whilst the midfield four of Gerrard, Lampard, Barry and Cole look to have starts on their positions in the side, the chances of England’s expected first choice midfield coming through 2009/10 unscathed, fit and fighting for South Africa aren’t nearly as high as our hopes of them doing so are. Therefore, discrediting some of the below names as mere outsiders may be a fair reflection of their standing today, but will lead to feelings of sheer unnecessary dread come the competition proper 2010 and, say, Lampard pulls up in training two days before the opening game of the tournament next summer and a ‘mere outsider’ has to step up to the plate.
England is fortunate in the sense that the central midfield role has plenty of competition, unfortunate in the sense that many of those tried and tested have failed to gel at national level. Michael Carrick has been in sparkling form for his club this campaign but he has dropped behind Barry in the England pecking order. There is no doubt the Manchester United man’s passing is superior, but he lacks the tenacity and drive which has endeared Barry to Capello. However, with Carrick playing such a vital role in United’s successes in recent campaigns, and Barry’s recent mediocre outing, Capello may well be contemplating a change. Owen Hargreaves’ devastating luck with injury has left him more or less forgotten at present but a return to fitness will surely see genuine competition for those central midfield berths.
Walcott’s hat-trick in Croatia last September had England fans drooling at the mouth and revelling in the hope that the country had a new wonder kid who could fire them to glory. Nine months on and all that hype and excitement is slowing draining away. His form for Arsenal has been poor since the turn of the year, although a lengthy absence should be taken into account. The young Gunner has devastating pace and is capable of winning football matches when he shines, but like Lennon, his final ball and decision-making is nowhere near good enough and unless he makes dramatic strides over the course of the next year he may find himself watching next year’s World Cup from the bench.
The youngster will probably be joined there by fellow winger Ashley Young. This season’s PFA Young Player of the Year has been in scintillating form but continues to struggle to force his way into the national team – and even the squad on occasions. The Aston Villa man will surely be in the reckoning this time next year but the signs suggest he will have to improve even further to secure a starting spot. Shaun Wright-Phillips will also be pushing for a place in England’s South Africa squad but he seems to be behind a number of wingers at present, form pending.
The England set-up is certainly not short of fast wide men at present but there are other options on the left a