Flow Joe identified as England's missing link

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Joe Cole in the hole. Or, at the very least, the centre of midfield – which is where the most naturally-gifted footballer of his generation has always craved to be. Selecting the 26-year-old alongside Steven Gerrard for tonight's encounter against Switzerland, and with that licence to push on, may well prove the most significant tactical decision taken by Fabio Capello in the choice of the first England team under his stewardship.

It could also be the making of Cole or, for his country and under this coach, the breaking of him. Indeed where to accommodate Joseph John Cole has been a constant question ever since he first burst on the scene as an audacious talent at West Ham United more than a decade ago.

His skills were beyond doubt, his application and discipline were always questioned which makes it all the more fascinating that Capello has identified him to take such a crucial role in his maiden selection.

Not that he is the first manager to think this way. Intriguingly Jose Mourinho, when he arrived at Chelsea in the summer of 2004, quickly decided where he wanted to play Cole. In an interview with The Independent, Cole said that Mourinho was "the first manager who has come in and played me in my right position... his style of play can really make me flourish. It is all I ever wanted."

Asked what he believed that position to be Cole added: "I'm a link man, playing behind the strikers. And that's a position that needs patience. The ability to come in, go out, come back in. In English games it is very much front to back, two banks of four, trying to attack."

Looking back at that interview Cole also spoke about the Mourinho regime and the discipline he installed (although that did gradually become much more lax). The rules, such as the players eating together, being given a list of dos and don'ts and being told when to sleep plus the double training sessions are all things that Capello has also instituted with England.

The suspicion has always been, and it is one shared by Cole himself, who loves Spanish football in particular, that he is more suited to a style not in keeping with the English game. But then he was not allowed to play where he wanted to by Mourinho for long partly because the manager decided to adapt his formation and go with two wingers and partly because, to be frank, Cole did not grasp the opportunity with sufficient maturity.

Famously, just four months after the interview took place, he was hauled off after scoring the winning goal against Liverpool with Mourinho fiercely criticising him. "After Cole scored, the game ended for him," he said and there were many such bruising lessons under the Portuguese including being substituted mid-way through the first-half in a league match against Fulham.

It served to harden Cole up and make him a tougher, more robust player and one more willing to adapt to a tactical framework even if, at times, Mourinho appeared vindictive. It also finally earned him a permanent place in the England team as he proved able to fill the perennial left-sided problem. But although playing there gave him an international career it never made the best use of Cole even if, in fairness, he has probably been England's most effective player for the past two years, which shows just how well he has done during that time.

But he is not left-footed, he wants to come inside and is at his happiest "linking" through the centre. The moment of the season so far? It could be his brilliant contribution to Didier Drogba's goal against Valencia in the Champions League last autumn when he stole possession and played a killer pass that meant the striker did not even have to break stride.

Capello may well have been influenced by that and although his teams are undoubtedly built from the back, with defence the first and last priority, there has always been room for creativity. At Juventus he brought the best out of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for example, while dumping Alessandro del Piero. And although he spent last season at Real Madrid suspicious of the talents of Robinho, a similar player to Cole in his trickery, the likelihood is that the England man will follow the example of the Swede and not the Brazilian.