Wayne Rooney’s importance in the upcoming World Cup is being reiterated to us every single time he scores a goal. This season he has scored nine goals with his head, a large proportion of which have been assisted by Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia.
If England are to feed Rooney’s new strength, they will need to have at least one winger that is suitably apt to supply Rooney with a barrage of crosses. With Emile Heskey looking like the favourite to partner Rooney up front, height will be a major factor through the middle and thus the influence of England’s wingers may be amplified. Should England progress beyond the first group stage, the quality of opposition will be drastically better – hence England coach Fabio Capello will be loath to have wingers that are out of form and lacking penetration. He is not short of options – there are at least eight wide men who have a chance to book their ticket to South Africa.
Pace is something that has not been associated with England in recent years since Michael Owen’s decline – therefore opponents may not be expecting players like Aaron Lennon and Ashley Young to be unleashed. Perhaps England have become a nation that is synonymous with pedestrian pace and gritty displays.
Lennon is England’s form winger this season. Despite being injured for the second half of the campaign, his performances in the first section of games were so impressive that, if fit, he should be a certainty to play in South Africa. Lennon continues to progress as a player – in seasons preceding this campaign, his delivery always let him down and he was berated for not having a final ball. Whilst his pace and trickery has never been in question, there were always question marks over whether he could really develop the necessary ability to compete for England.
This season has seen Lennon put all such doubts to bed – nine assists and four goals, combined with frightening pace, has made him arguably the best winger in the Premier League. His agility could give England another option and Rooney would be delighted to be on the receiving end of Lennon’s improved delivery. In previous appearances for the team, Lennon has impressed and although he has not cemented himself as a starter through his performances for England, his league efforts should suffice. However, one quandary for Capello is that Lennon is looking increasingly unlikely to have many games behind him in the build up to the World Cup – something that is paramount to Capello’s philosophy over squad selection.
In many people’s eyes, Theo Walcott is Aaron Lennon without a delivery, and Walcott’s efforts over the last few seasons seem to compliment such a train of thought. Since his early days as a bright 17-year-old, with the hopes of England’s future seemingly resting on his shoulders, Walcott has stagnated as a footballer. Many commentators have pointed to his failure to acquire a trick – something to aid him to get past a full-back – as one of the main reasons for his poor form. He is also very injury prone so he rarely gets any consistent run of matches. His one saving grace is that Capello, and Croatia, know exactly what he is capable of – his hat-trick against the Croats in the qualifying stages show just how talented he can be. But Capello is a pragmatist – he will realise that one performance doesn’t mean you are capable of playing for England and Walcott’s recent form doesn’t warrant a place in the squad.
Joe Cole has had a similar season to the Arsenal speedster. The Chelsea creative midfielder has spent a lot of time on the sidelines with many pundits suggesting that he, like Walcott, has not played enough to deserve a place. If Capello was to pick the England squad using Ryder Cup tactics – which awards team places to players over an accumulation of points in a season – Joe Cole would not be on the plane to South Africa. Nevertheless, Cole is too big a performer for England to be overlooked by Capello – he was one of England’s brighter lights in the 2006 World Cup and is now of an age where his experience will be extremely valuable. As an England regular over the past few years, he is a reliable candidate and combines an excellent delivery with tenacity and pace. Should Cole impress for Chelsea in the remaining games of the season, he seems a shoo-in to travel to South Africa.
On the periphery of the quick winger selection is Ashley Young who has had a rather subdued campaign. In the past two seasons he has collected the Young Player of the Year award which is testament to how good a winger he is, but he has been overshadowed by the exploits of Aaron Lennon and Villa team-mate James Milner this season. Although in the second half of the campaign, Young is beginning to find his form, he has looked overawed in an England shirt and has gone missing in games – something that was noticeable in the first half of the Carling Cup Final. While Young’s technical ability is not in question, nor is his crossing – alongside David Beckham, he is now England’s best crosser of the ball – he has yet to deliver on the big stage which will worry Capello. Young’s omission from the squad against Greece intimates that he has not impressed enough and will need a spectacular finish to the season to find himself on the plane.
Shaun Wright-Phillips has been selected for the friendly against Greece but it appears his chances are running out – this season has been a disappointment for the minute wide man and he now seems to be vying for a position with Adam Johnson at Manchester City. Wright-Phillips has been a failure for England on too many occasions and it would not be surprising if Capello has lost patience with him. Although undeniably talented, Wright Phillips’ pace will not get him into the squad alone and he needs to bring something new to his game – ideally a final ball if he is to have a chance of being selected.