England enter the
The Premier League has enjoyed a boom over the past decade. Foreign superstars, continental Coaches, big-money sponsors and wealthy owners have flooded in and the standard of football has risen accordingly. Prior to this season, an English side had reached the Champions League final for five consecutive seasons, with Liverpool (2005) and Manchester United (2008) lifting the trophy. Despite the influx of foreign talent, home-grown stars have played central roles in the success of Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool. And of England ‘s prospective World Cup squad, now that LA Galaxy midfielder David Beckham is injured, none plies his trade abroad.
The huge resources are finally reaping rewards for the national team. England, who are currently ranked eighth in the world, qualified for the World Cup by winning nine out of their 10 matches, scoring 34 goals and conceding just six. But, in truth, England owe much of the transformation to the imported expertise of Fabio Capello. The Italian has instilled discipline and belief into a side of shattered egos and splintered support.
Capello’s initial attempts to transform the team were met with suspicion. In his first international against Switzerland at Wembley in February 2008 – a game they won 2-1 – the fans were audibly irritated by the team’s slow build-up play and possession-focused football. For fans accustomed to the blood-and-thunder tempo of English football it was frustrating and doubts were immediately raised. But as the players – who were suffering from fragile faith – have become comfortable with the technical passing game Capello has encouraged, and interwoven it with the more traditional virtues of physicality and pace, the results have come and the fans have been appeased.
On the foundations of a solid English back four, Capello has encouraged fluidity and flexibility in England ‘s attack. The idea is to get England ‘s best attackers into the danger zone. Gareth Barry – whose attendance depends on his fitness nearer the tournament – and Frank Lampard provide a stable and efficient central partnership allowing the rest of the midfield and forward-line the freedom to roam. Steven Gerrard, starting from an inside-left position, moves into the supporting striker’s role – exchanging places with Wayne Rooney – allowing him to come in on goal on his thunderous right foot. The pace of the overlapping Ashley Cole makes up for any lack of width the midfield set-up may create. On the opposite flank Aaron Lennon operates high and wide, giving England width and the opportunity to exploit teams on the counter-attack and get behind opposition defences. Emile Heskey is more static in his role as lone striker, but his strength and pace is central to creating space for his more technically talented teammates. However, for all Capello’s influence, Rooney remains the fulcrum of England ‘s attack and the source of all hope. The Manchester United striker’s form this season has fostered the belief that he will be among the contenders for player of the tournament.
England ‘s players are accustomed to playing in front huge crowds of over 60 000 every week at stadiums such as the Emirates and Old Trafford, while millions watch on television. This should put them in good stead for the inevitable expectations placed upon them by their fans and ensure they can handle any atmosphere. However, the quality of facilities in England could count against England if the pitches in South Africa do not match the high standards of the English Premier League.
England ‘s draw for the tournament has only heightened anticipation with the relative frailties of the opposition. Their first match will be close to their base as they play the USA on June 12 in Rustenburg – 1500m above sea level. Trips to Cape Town (1,385 km) to play Algeria and Port Elizabeth (1,105 km) to face Slovenia follow. The hikes in altitude – something that is alien to the England-based players – should not hinder their progression to the latter stages of the tournament, owing to the quality of their opponents.