Sunday, March 29, 2009

England v Slovakia, Friendly, March 28

A lot of the pre-game distractions consisted of debating the merits and demerits of including a rarely training, starting-one-game-a-week Ledley King in the England squad. When the dust settled and Ledley was well home for the friendly against Slovakia, Capello’s England still had a job to do, irrespective of who the individuals gracing the team sheet were. The night ended 4-0 for the hosts at Wembley and while the really serious matter for England has to wait till Wednesday, a number of valuable lessons were learnt that will hold them in good stead when the mood turns to competitive from friendly.

It’s a funny situation to be in, but Capello’s only major selection problems are for positions where he has an abundance of talent, namely the centre of midfield. For all other positions, he either has distinctly superior first choice players (centre backs, left back and one striker) or enough non-exceptional ones who may be switched one for the other depending on fitness, form and strategy (goal, right back, right and left midfield when Joe Cole is not available and the other striker).

The Missing Centre Back

Given Rio’s unavailability and King’s return, Upson came in to support Terry as the second centre back and while the English defense was rarely stretched, it was evident that the Hammer’s defender (or for that matter almost anyone else) will be a backup option only. The real toughie for Capello is to spot and identify at least two potential back-ups who would be able to fill in, in case one or both of his first choice pair are unavailable for competitive games and most importantly for the tournament itself, assuming England get there. Upson is gaining valuable experience but he seems a little slow and prone to being pressured into errors. King can be in the World Cup squad if Rio and John are both fit and available, but if calamity strikes and a player who can start every game has to be identified, then I suspect, Capello’s search is still on.

The Lampard-Gerrard Question

The Lampard-Gerrard question was for once effectively answered in the positive, though I am not sure it has been answered once and for all. Lampard had clear instructions to reign in his attacking instincts to a certain extent and Gerrard though chalked in for the left, was allowed the freedom to roam into the centre like he does for his club. The fact that Rooney does not mind going wide (and deep) allowed this approach to work and the two complemented each other like ballroom dancers for some of that first half. Carrick missed out from the starting eleven but from a team point of view, his and potentially Hargreaves’ availability for the midfield, portents very well for England and Capello. If Capello did achieve anything significant in that first half, it was proving that Lampard and Gerrard could be played together, though I suspect he could have replaced Lampard with Carrick and the game would not have known.

The real point of interest for me would be to see, if Lampard can play the role that Gerrard played effectively enough. Joe Cole is often injured and Downing has good positional sense, but with skills that could be clearly bettered. If Lamaprd can do the job that Gerrard did, then it allows Capello to have better players on the pitch in case Gerrard is unavailable for a game or two. However, that is a question that has not been answered yet and hence, I do not expect to see Capello take that option anytime soon even if an unwanted injury to Gerrard may cry for something more impactful than Downing on that left.

The Target Man and the Striker

Emil Heskey has the role of non-scoring striker in Capello’s plans and though he did score England’s opener, his later miss was enough indication that he can be the target man but rarely the finisher. Heskey is probably the best available option against teams when playing the ball on the ground will not always be the smartest thing to do and England are forced to hoof the ball up, but when the game is easily kept in the opposition third, I would prefer to see someone more clinical. Of course, Carlton Cole or Peter Crouch are not necessarily comparable to some of the greatest finishers in the game, but I would rate both higher than Heskey on that count and I also feel, that the team is begging for Michael Owen’s return to fitness and form. At his best, he will score many against light weight teams and though an opposition like Spain may dictate that Heskey starts ahead of him, against the likes of Slovakia (or even Ukraine) it is the Owen kind of player who is needed more than an ox like worker.

Beckham or the Little Three

The right side of midfield is one that is the most open to interpretation and strong feelings. The great Brian Glanville has been openly critical of Capello for handling Beckham cap after cap in substitute appearances, but for once I am compelled to differ from my favorite football writer’s opinions. Lennon showed pace and the ability to get behind the defense and that is a trait we can expect to see from SWP and Walcott as well. However, all three are miles behind the quality that Beckham brings to crosses and time and again it has been evident that if you need strikers to be set up from the right, then you need David Beckham to be playing there. For a moment assuming that the trio of Walcott, Lennon and SWP are interchangeable based on form and fitness, I would tend to prefer Beckham over the other three as with the current Milan loanee, you can be guaranteed of mayhem being caused in the opposition box through well taken set pieces and precise crosses. With the other three you are guaranteed fancy footwork and lots of speed, but the level of impact can vary significantly from game to game, and selecting them is more of a lottery than the dependable ex-captain.

Rooney at Work

Gerrard’s substitution at half time did allow the Liverpool captain some rest ahead of Wednesday, but personally I was disappointed to miss the opportunity of seeing the Rooney-Gerrard pairing operating from the left, supported by Beckham on the right. Rooney’s own approach to the game changed significantly once Gerrard was gone and he tended to play more down the centre, thereby taking away a very potent threat that England had posed for much of the first half from the left.

Rooney was justifiably the man of the match and apart from his two goals, he contributed significantly by dictating how England played in the opposition third. When Gerrard was around, he looked to link up with Gerrard and either created opportunities for the Liverpool man to get behind the fullbacks, or did so himself while letting Gerrard assume the role of creator. Then, in the second half, he chose to collect the ball in the centre and distribute it to Downing or Beckham, almost choosing which of his support men he wanted to come into play. If there is one complaint that I have with his performance yesterday, it is of his reluctance to pass the ball to Beckham when the right sided midfielder was free and wide and well placed to deliver a precise cross. Very often Rooney chose to go with Downing who was invariably better marked or lacked the tools to do much with those opportunities. On other occasions he looked to bring the play narrow by choosing the ask Beckham to run for the ball in the box, thereby exposing Beckham’s lack of speed.

On Defending

After refusing to be more than obstacles till the very early injury to Heskey, Slovakia got a little more into the game and worked hard to keep possession. When they got the ball they tried to come close to the man in possession and always provide passing options to team mates, but invariably when they reached the business end of the field, they found their passing options cut off. Lacking the pace in their legs, the physical presence of their opponents and the precision in their passing, they invariably handed over the ball to England sooner rather than later and England’s composure out of possession was commendable.

There was no desperation to get the ball back the moment it was lost and nothing stupid was done throughout the game. There was the odd error, but by and large they were always well covered. Against mightier opposition they would need to maybe ensure that even the odd slip here and there (one by Upson when he almost let the ball run free in the box and once after a corner when no one came to close the ball down after a variation was played) is cut out as it could prove costly. However, on the whole, England’s approach to defending and regaining the ball when out of position was admirable and I would not be surprised if they become a very hard team to beat even when playing against the best.


Gerrard and Rooney were the highlights of the evening and it was easy to single them out. Having said that, almost every England player was shown in a positive light in what was a great team performance. Lampard was amazing in the manner in which he curbed his game and did the job that was expected of him. Both he and Barry (and later on Carrick) kept distribution simple and made very few errors while using the odd opportunity to make a defense splitting pass perfectly. Lennon, who could have done better in offence, was great when it came to defense and his positioning as well as timing of closing down on the opposition were brilliant and won a number of balls back for England.

Ashley Cole was not devastating but played his part in supporting Gerrard and Rooney. Glen Johnson did not take every opportunity available to him to make forward runs, but he compensated for that with a composed defensive performance and some good balls to his attackers over the opposition. Terry and Upson were largely comfortable and David James was attentive on the few occasions he was required to be. Clearly the goalkeeping question will be preying on Capello’s mind, but till an alternative emerges who is fulfilling Capello’s requirements for selection (i.e. a Ben Foster playing every week?) I suspect he will disregard James’ age and the reputation for calamity and stick with him as first choice.

In spite of missing a sitter after scoring a first where he didn’t know too much about the finish, Heskey had an awesome first fifteen minutes and he was in scoring positions on more occasions in that time, than some others would have been over a full ninety. Cole was comparatively silent over his twenty minutes or so, but the Slovak defense had got a little more organized by the time he came in and though England were always dangerous, Cole really did not get enough of a chance to stamp his authority. Crouch did the job he does and had Terry not off-sided his goal bound effort, his match ratings would have been significantly higher, by the time he limped off with injury as well.

What Next

A lot will depend on the extent of injuries that his strikers suffered on the day, but if even one of them is fit enough to start, I expect exactly the same from Capello and England against Ukraine. I also expect that to be more than sufficient for a win, which may or may not be similar in terms of margin but could be exactly the same in terms of comfort. Of course, my pick would be to have Beckham start on the right but I don’t think that is going to happen.

If the strikers are all out with injuries, then Lampard could play behind lone striker Rooney, like they did for the last few minutes of this one. With Rooney’s natural game taking him to many parts of the field other than the opposition box, Lampard would then have to be on the top of his game in terms of his ability to run into the box as well as dominate in the air against a physically strong Ukrainian side. Also, in this case, maybe a Lennon would be a more definite pick ahead of a Beckham, as quick passing and keeping the ball at the feet in the box may prove more useful then looking for headers.

Another three points would put England very comfortably on the road to qualification and that is the least the Capello’s regime is being expected to deliver. From a longer term perspective, there is clearly room for a better keeper, a truly great striker apart from Rooney and maybe even a far more potent right back. Backup players for all positions apart from the centre of midfield could be an issue and if England do qualify, their fate could depend heavily on how many of their first choice players are able to stay fit.

But that is getting a little ahead of ourselves. For now, the only important game is to be played next week and for once, it is easier to predict an English win than a botch up. What has improved since the McClaren era is that England now play like a sum total of the quality of their players and you would expect them to win every game where they enter with superior personnel. That will not be the case against the likes of Brazil and Spain, but next week, it’s all about being better than Ukraine.

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