England’s dress rehearsal for Wednesday’s crunch World Cup qualifier against Croatia passed by with something of a whimper, but the 2-1 win over European minnows Slovenia has left Head Coach Fabio Capello with a few questions to ponder. The former Milan Coach threw up few surprises with his starting XI, with Shaun Wright-Phillips getting the nod over Aaron Lennon the only one to cause even a slight stir. In an altogether dull affair, England overcame a decent Slovenian outfit without really breaking sweat, while offering Capello one or two selection headaches.
2 Johnson – 6 Terry – 5 Upson – 3 A. Cole
7 Wright-Phillips – 8 Lampard – 11 Barry – 4 Gerrard
9 Heskey – 10 Rooney
The main one being his strike-force, as yet again the Italian’s first choice strike pairing looked largely impotent. It is no secret Emile Heskey lacks on the goals front, even if his work elsewhere on the pitch is appreciated by the team. Defenders hate playing against the Aston Villa man as he puts himself about plenty and his endeavour and hold up qualities have always been favourable with Capello. But relying on a man whose international goalscoring record reads a paltry one in eight and who is struggling to get into his club team at present, strikes of desperation. A strike partner for the irrepressible Wayne Rooney has long been a talking point for the Three Lions and with Michael Owen out-of-favour and with plenty to prove, the country has been waiting for the ideal replacement to step forward.
With Croatia on the horizon has an in-form Jermain Defoe done enough to warrant a start in a vital international? Defoe once again found the net after replacing Heskey at the break, with his superbly taken strike on 63 minutes following up his excellent brace in Amsterdam last month. In fact, the Tottenham hitman has now struck eight times in his last nine outings for England, with this statistic even more impressive when considering he has only been on the pitch for 352 minutes in those games – a strike rate of a goal every 39 minutes. Surely a sure bet for a starting berth then?
Well, Capello clearly favours a target man in the team for the likes of Rooney and Steven Gerrard to play off. Although, the likes of Rooney, Gerrard and Frank Lampard have goals in them, it is clear when watching England that there isn’t a player who wants to trouble the opposition defence by getting in behind by playing on the shoulder of the last defender, or a player who lurks on the edge of the six-yard box, desperate for any sniff of the a goal. Defoe is that man, and although he clearly doesn’t offer any of the same kind of hold up play or aerial threat Heskey does, the former Portsmouth striker will stretch and bother defences and is ultimately a major goal threat – something Heskey ultimately is not. Defoe is a natural goalscorer who will guarantee any side goals, especially with the likes of Gerrard and Rooney offering the creativity – any goalscorer would thrive on that kind of service. Is it time Capello changed his philosophy on what he wants his No 9 to offer the team? England fans will no doubt be crying out that strikers are there to score goals – simple. Whatever way Capello chooses to go come Wednesday, Defoe continues to give the England boss food for thought and at present that’s all he can do. Perhaps if England suffer defeat at the hands of the Croats, he will change his mind, but for now don’t be surprised if Capello sticks with a winning formula.
Turning our attention to the midfield, Capello is clear in his mind of what he wants here, even if he hasn’t quite decided on the personnel just yet. Lampard and Gareth Barry continue to cement their partnership in the central positions although Michael Carrick will no doubt be pushing hard come next summer. The Manchester United man is undoubtedly one of the best passers in the game but Capello seems to favour the tenacity of Barry at the moment. Something Barry and Lampard do need to look at is where they are receiving the ball from the back four. As, for the most time, both players seem desperate to collect the ball of one of the centre-back’s toes, thus limiting their options when they have it. When collecting the ball from the centre-halves, they face a wall of 11 opposition players and are largely forced to launch aimless balls forward to teammates outnumbered up ahead. Javier Mascherano and Claude Makelele are fine exponents of keeping the ball ticking over instead of simply taking themselves out of the game and stepping on the defenders’ toes. From an outsider’s viewpoint it looks as if Barry is uncomfortable taking the ball higher up the pitch and having the confidence and awareness to turn on it and play the ball – something Carrick is more adept at.
Something England’s midfield at the moment does possess is great balance. Capello only uses one (pacey) out-and-out winger, this time Wright-Phillips getting the nod, and a more creative player on the other flank who is more inclined to move inside, i.e. Gerrard, or against the Dutch, David Beckham. Gerrard’s left-flank role continues to improve as the Liverpool man found himself much more in the game than he has on previous occasions. He is helped by the return to form and fitness of left-back Ashley Cole, who marauded up and down the left in more of a wing-back role and offered Gerrard an excellent decoy when he wanted to move inside. It is still up for debate whether playing Gerrard out on the left is best for England (and the player himself) but at the moment Capello is convinced it is right and as time goes on the Liverpool skipper will only get more and more accustomed to the role and continue to beautifully link up with Rooney on the left-hand side.
Overall, Capello will chew on his side’s rather tepid display against the unremarkable Slovenians knowing the true test comes in the form of rivals Croatia on Wednesday. England’s sloppy defending from the latest friendlies will need to pick up although the back-line throughout qualifying has been almost impeccable. The major question mark remains who will be Rooney’s partner up top. Has Defoe indeed done enough or will Capello continue in his unrelenting loyalty and belief in Heskey? All will be answered in midweek as England look to book their place in South Africa.
England 2-1 Slovenia – Lampard 31, Defoe 63 – Ljubijankic 83
England – (4-4-2) Green – Johnson, Terry, Upson (Lescott 64), A. Cole – Wright-Phillips (Lennon 46), Lampard, Barry (Carrick 46), Gerrard (Milner 46) – Rooney (C. Cole 80), Heskey (Defoe 46)
Slovenia – (4-4-2) Handanovic – Cesar (Mavric 34), Brecko, Jokic, Suler – Radosavljevic (Krhin 77), Koren, Kirm (Stevanovic 78), Dedic (Peknik 71) – Novakovic (Ljubijankic 55), Birsa (Komac 65)
Green – poor mistake for handball but decent – 6
Johnson – disappointing again, poor for goal – 5
Terry – caught out at times – 6
Upson – solid enough – 7
A. Cole – full of running, positionally sound – 8
Wright-Phillips – too quiet – 6
Barry – tenacious – 7
Lampard – needs to join in further up the field – 7
Gerrard – a threat – 7
Rooney – could’ve had a hat-trick – 7
Heskey – worked hard, but didn’t carry a threat – 6
Carrick – kept things ticking over – 7
Milner – staking a claim, quality delivery of both feet – 7
Lennon – much more of a threat than Wright-Phillips – 8
Defoe – superbly taken goal – 8
Lescott – fine – 6
C. Cole – little time, offered one glimpse – 6
August 12, 2009 – 19:45 – Amsterdam ArenA, Amsterdam
Holland 2-2 England – Kuyt 10, van der Vaa