Two friendlies lead Capello back to square one

May 30, 2010

It’s difficult to analyse England’s 2-1 win over Japan, simply because it’s not clear what Fabio Capello was trying to discover. Was this match purely an audition for individuals to stake their claim, or was he trying to find a cohesive shape?

Assessing individuals was certainly on his mind, since Tom Huddlestone and Darren Bent – two players in danger of going home – were given starting places. This was plainly not the line-up that will face the USA. Capello stated in his pre-match interview that he had decided 20 of 23 the players, with one defensive, one midfield and one attacking position still up for grabs.

In his post-game interview he declared that he had settled on his 23. Quite who he has decided upon taking, we won’t know for a few days yet, but in a way this is besides the point; the 8th-choice defender, for example, is unlikely to be making a huge impact in South Africa. Of more interest should be the first XI.

On that note, surely those back-up players should have been decided based upon their club form, or their training performance? These pre-World Cup friendlies against World Cup sides should have been used to help the team gel, but the games against Mexico and Japan hardly seem to have been used well in that respect.

The two formations

England’s best system is neither of the two used against Japan. The first-half shape (featuring two out-and-out wingers) doesn’t seem to suit the way England play. Taken in isolation, Aaron Lennon did reasonably well on the left-hand side; but then his natural width hindered the ability of Ashley Cole to get forward on the overlap. Playing both Lennon and Walcott barely offers a realistic goal threat from the flanks – the latter’s hattrick away in Croatia are the only goals either has scored for England, and they recorded just six Premiership goals between them this season.

Rooney, meanwhile, must be fielded either as a lone striker or alongside a ‘big man’ (ie Peter Crouch or Emile Heskey) if he is to play his best football. It seems slightly baffling that Capello has wasted three of the last six halves England have played trying Rooney and Defoe/Bent, considering (a) how well Rooney has played upfront for Manchester United on his own and (b) how well he has played with Heskey.

Capello may be looking for a plan B, of course, but then can you envisage a situation in the final 20 minutes of a game England are trailing in, where Heskey/Crouch is replaced with Defoe/Bent? It seems unlikely – when the opposition drop deep and defend solidly late on, the height and aerial threat of the ‘big man’ will be more valuable than the pace of Defoe (for it is surely he and not Bent that will get the nod) over the top.

England performed better in the second half. Partly a case of “Well, they couldn’t play any worse, could they?”, but also because they were playing purely technically-good players ahead of the defence, having withdrawn the ineffectual Bent, and Huddlestone – a fine player, but surely not one ready for international football. They had six players who could retain the ball, plus the bonus that Ashley Cole became involved in build-up play more; the left-winger was now Shaun Wright-Phillips – like Lennon, a natural winger, but one who drifted into the centre more and created space on the overlap.

In a low-tempo friendly, in a game where England were likely to see more possession anyway, and against a side that had gone 1-0 up and were happy to defend – the second-half line-up was probably right for the situation. Indeed, that may have been Capello’s objective at half-time – not to test out players, not to test out a particular formation, but to prevent what would have been an embarrassing, confidence-sapping defeat in the final game before South Africa.

Barry remains important for England

It’s difficult though, to imagine that those six would have worked well in a more evenly-balanced game where England were spending a greater amount of time on the back foot, looking to win the ball back.

Barry remains vital

Of course, so much depends upon the fitness of Gareth Barry. If he is fit, England’s system becomes a lot clearer. There seems to be an undue amount of attention being paid to whether Barry is fit for the USA game, partly because of comments from Fabio Capello himself. But if he is rated as 50:50 (or thereabouts) for England’s first game, surely he is near enough certain to be fit for later games, particularly in the knock-out stages?

England do not necessarily need to play a holding midfielder against the USA, Slovenia or Algeria, but the need for one will become more apparent in the knockout rounds, when Barry will be back. His fitness should not be judged upon his availability for the first game (although that is the latest he can be withdrawn from the squad) but upon his potential availability for the games against France/Spain/Holland/Brazil/Argentina, where he will be crucial to England’s system, a point well articulated by Terry Butcher.

Whether he is fit to face the USA is largely irrelevant; Lampard and Milner/Gerrard would be able to cope with the USA’s midfield, seeing as Bob Bradley looks like playing a fairly basic 4-4-2 with two solid central midfielders, rather than with someone who would generally be picked up by Barry (a player ‘in the hole’ or a midfield making runs from deep).

England’s best formation for the group games looks like being the one that served them so well through qualification. 4-4-2 with a ‘big man’ upfront, Gerrard cutting in from the left to combine with Rooney and allow Cole forward on the overlap, and a speedy right-winger on the opposite flank to stretch the play. The centre of midfield was a problem in this system against Mexico, but then that first half was without the calming influence of Frank Lampard – and none of England’s group opponents will cause such problems with movement.

Later on, a switch a 4-3-3 with Rooney upfront alone (as advocated by David Moyes in the Sunday Times today) may be the better option against top sides.

The most concerning thing is the fact that, without Barry, England will probably field a midfield against the USA that have never played together before; that is surely where these two friendlies were a missed opportunity.

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