Tactical breakdown – The England defence

Kicking off A Different League’s World Cup coverage is the first of a mini-series of analytical discussions looking at the options available to Fabio Capello in defence, midfield and attack.

Tactical debates have long been at the forefront of England fans’ minds but since the embarrassment of not reaching the Euro 2008 finals discussions surrounding the national side have intensified. The questions are still firmly there as South Africa 2010 looms. Despite Fabio Capello’s recent success, fans are still looking for answers to some puzzling questions, including probably the most baffling of all – who should play in goal?

David James continues to be Capello’s No 1, however the Portsmouth goalkeeper was ruled out of the recent qualifiers against Kazakhstan and Andorra after undergoing shoulder surgery – with West Ham’s Robert Green deputising in both games. This was a short-term change, but the question remains – who is good enough for the long-term?

With James reaching the age of 38 (39 in August), the question on the lips of many England fans is will he be fit enough or indeed good enough for the 2010 World Cup? James represents fantastic physical presence and showcases his talents as an athlete with wonderful saves that stretch his body to the limit. With age and fitness potentially becoming a problem as James limbers up for another 38-game campaign at Portsmouth, other English goalkeepers will be looking to claim the No 1 jersey on the world stage next year.

Blackburn Rovers goalkeeper Paul Robinson played a pivotal role in keeping the club in the Premier League last season. With consistency a problem for the former Tottenham Hotspur ‘keeper, he has shown England’s Head Coach why he deserves a place back in the squad with some fantastic performances in the 2008/09 season. He was almost an ever-present – with 35 appearances – in a side which had its ups and downs throughout the campaign. Robinson has always been a highly rated goalkeeper – showcasing fantastic agility and shot-stopping ability combined with excellent communication with the back four and, using his height as an advantage, can command crosses into his penalty area. Confidence, however, is an issue with Robinson as was seen in the Euro 2008 qualifying campaigns. He suffered a torrid time in both Croatia and Russia, which eventually lead to his exclusion from further squads and the England set-up.

This writer believes the most consistent goalkeeper – and the one who is often overlooked when it comes to the England side – is Rob Green at West Ham United. Consistency is always a key element for top quality goalkeepers, and the former Norwich City man has this in abundance. Combining fantastic positional sense with dependable shot-stopping, Green has the ability to take the No 1 spot at the age of only 29, considered young for the position. He does not tend to make high profile mistakes and had an excellent last season with the Hammers, keeping 10 clean sheets and guiding them to a 9th placed finish under Gianfranco Zola. English fans were alerted to Green’s ability after a superb end of season display in 2007/08 to help West Ham survive in the Premier League – most notably keeping clean sheets against title challengers Arsenal and Manchester United. He offers something England has not had recently in the goalkeeping area – stability. Green is a goalkeeper who does not make mistakes often and is capable of producing world-class saves and dictating his area with good communication and positional sense.

The other candidates who also have strong cases to be in the reckoning for a starting spot, or at least be part of the squad to travel to South Africa in 2010, are Scott Carson and Ben Foster. Although Ben Foster was out for the two most recent qualifiers due to thumb surgery, the 26-year-old Manchester United man is seen as the direct replacement to the ageing James. With Edwin van der Sar seeming to be on his last legs for Manchester United, it is thought that Foster will become United’s first choice and should therefore at least challenge for the England number No 1 spot. The young keeper never seems to be phased by a challenge after his heroics in the Carling Cup final. A successful season-long loan at Watford – where Foster was bombarded with shots in almost every game – showed his goalkeeping talents, in shot-stopping mostly. However, mistakes were sometimes seen in his game, perhaps inevitable with his age and lack of experience.

Scott Carson will be famously remembered for the calamitous incident in the vital Euro 2008 qualifying game against Croatia. A simple shot he palmed into the net has looks to have ended the dreams of an England No 1 spot for the West Bromwich Albion ‘keeper. The talent is there – he is a young, good quality English goalkeeper with good ability. However the key word is good – Carson needs to be excellent to become Capello’s first choice. In a number of performances last season he did not make the key saves which you look for in a stand-out goalkeeper – saves which define games. England needs goalkeepers who can win games on their own and have a hunger to make such saves. A modern day Gordon Banks or Peter Shilton would certainly put this question to rest.

The run-up to the World Cup in 2010 also poses the debate over which defenders should be taken to the tournament. With Rio Ferdinand and captain John Terry, the central-defence pairing looks tactically astute – the questions are about possible back-up centre-halves and the right-back spot for the England team. Terry and Ferdinand are the obvious first choices in the centre-back positions because they complement each other perfectly. Rio Ferdinand employs a much more relaxed style to his game, oozing confidence to pass the ball from the back – a self-belief that spreads throughout the side. John Terry is tactically a different player and plays a completely opposite role to Ferdinand in the other centre-half position. Terry, as captain, showcases fantastic tackling ability along with heading prowess to give a commanding presence on the team. Whilst the Chelsea man can read the game perfectly and make key interceptions, his defensive partner uses pace and strength to match competitive centre-forwards on an international stage. This writer is convinced with this combination of talents, Capello’s defence should be a success in South Africa.

With the regular centre-half duo seemingly untouchable there is still room for players who can come in and compete for a place and cover for injuries or suspensions. A particular player who has stood out – not just in terms of performance, but versatility too – is Everton’s Joleon Lescott. The 26-year-old has had a fantastic season for Everton, showing the nation how he is maturing into a fine defender and composing himself at the highest level, with superb positional sense and consistent high-class defensive displays. Lescott could also be in the England squad for his ability to perform at left back – not only defensively but also in going forward to help with attacks. Tactically, England could also benefit from Lescott’s attacking presence at set-pieces. His movement in the box lead to 10 goals in all competitions in the 2007/08 season and Capello would do well to utilise his clever movement and excellent leap.

There are many other options in the centre-half department – however there are some severe question marks over fitness. Ledley King, Jonathan Woodgate and Matthew Upson all are top quality centre-halves, but only when

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