I can't remember going into a World Cup with England as unsure about the identity of the team. How many times have we not even known who the goalkeeper is? Everybody is now waiting for Fabio Capello to name his side. There are doubts over the keeper, the centre of the defence, the midfield and who will play up front. That's too many questions.
You hear from within the camp that Capello is very tight-lipped about everything. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course, and it will keep players on their toes. But as a player I always wanted to know as early as possible if I was going to start. Then I could play the game in my head, sort out my needs as an individual – who I was to pick up, how I was to play, almost head and kick every ball – and then look to my unit, the defence, and then the team as a whole. Sometimes when you don't know who is playing it can create a nervousness across the squad. It may not bother some players, but I've not met many of them.
Capello's biggest influence on the team, in fact the whole England set- up, is in creating an environment that what he says goes. He has installed discipline, a teacher/pupil relationship that is important for this group of players. That had been lost under the two previous regimes and it cost England.
What of the team? There is one crucial point here: the formation has to get the most out of the key personnel, and for that reason I would play a five-man midfield –it makes best use of the resources that England have. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard cannot play together, but they remain key individuals.
The answer is to push Gerrard forward, free him up. Look at the way he has played for Liverpool this season – England have to get the ball to him high up the pitch. For Liverpool he plays off Fernando Torres, makes breaks off him and gets into the box where he can cause most damage. Gerrard likes playing that way, too. It would mean fielding Wayne Rooney up front on his own, and he has no problems taking that role either – we know that from what he did for Manchester United this season when he proved a lot of us wrong. He told Alan Shearer the other day that he actually enjoys playing as a lone striker.
Naturally you would play Gareth Barry in the holding role of a midfield five, so if he is not fit Michael Carrick should fill in against the United States. He can let Lampard get forward to provide another goal threat. England sometimes get overrun in midfield so it is important to have bodies there – Aaron Lennon is never going to be the man to track back and fly into the tackles but when it comes to defending he does provide another body.
The US are not flair orientated, they will be very well organised and look to Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan to hurt England down the wings. That is where James Milner and Lennon come in from a defensive point of view.
I like Milner a lot. He has a natural drive. As an ex-footballer he is the sort of player you look and think straight away: yes, he's got it. He produces no matter what; he has good feet, dribbles well, can cross and tackle, and then there is his versatility. Ray Parlour used to do something similar at Arsenal, every game you could be certain of a performance, and that means a lot to players around him.
England's wide men can cause plenty of trouble going forward as I don't fancy the American full-backs, Bocanegra and Cherundolo. They need to get wide and deliver balls into the box for Rooney and Gerrard, and Lampard making those late runs. Behind that Carrick provides a safety valve.
That is what I would do, but I don't think Capello will, certainly not at this stage of the tournament. He seems certain to play Emile Heskey in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1, although he may well change the formation as the tournament progresses and England head into the knockout stages. That should not be a problem for this squad of players as I think they are comfortable enough with change.
Why does Capello place such faith in Heskey? When you play a big centre forward it can help push the opposition's defence back – keep them down the pitch, creating space for the midfield. Apart from Lennon, England do not have blistering pace in midfield so if Rooney is coming short, the team may be pushed back without someone like Heskey to hold the frontline. But the basic fact remains that Heskey's scoring record is not good and if Rooney is not scoring this is not a team that looks full of goals. Peter Crouch's goalscoring record for England is excellent – perhaps he has not done it against top teams, but then in the group stages England are not playing top teams. If either is required, it would have to be Crouch. England's forward options are a concern. I don't understand why Capello has not taken five strikers. With the goals Darren Bent scored in the Premier League, he should be here. One injury and England are in trouble as there is no cover. You have to make allowances for a situation like Michael Owen suffered four years ago.
No matter how good King is, there will be problems
A team is all about partnerships and John Terry and Rio Ferdinand were an excellent one for England. No matter how good Ledley King is, there will be issues over his link-up with Terry. When I was at Arsenal, Tony Adams and I used to go off to play for England alongside Des Walker. He was one England's best centre-backs – "you'll never beat Des Walker" and all that – but he was used to playing in an entirely different way. Tony and I would step up and stick our arms in the air and then look round to see Des tearing off after the breaking player.
There will always come a moment in a game when your instincts kick in and you step up while your partner is doing the complete opposite and haring back. At this level, that split second can be decisive. Terry and King are both great centre-backs, but they lack time together. I would definitely play King, but it is still a gamble. His knee could flare up at any time.
1. There's just something about Brazil They may not be the scintillating team of old – Socrates is apparently supporting Portugal in this tournament as he's so disappointed with Dunga's style of management– but they are still capable of blowing teams away in a moment. And whatever you say about them, they still have the best kit. During my time with England I had a rule that I only swapped shirts when I started – we played Brazil once, I was on the bench so never got one. "You fool," said my son. He was right.
2. Left in the dark over Paraguay I had a phone call from a friend this week wondering why on earth I was tipping Paraguay as my dark horses in another newspaper. I don't know where that came from, I never said any such thing. The official Dixon dark horses are Uruguay. Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez give them real strength up front.
3. Chile: another outside tip I also fancy Chile to cause a stir. They qualified really well out of a tough South American section. I like the look of their Udinese striker Alexis Sanchez, who has also caught the eye of some Premier League managers.
4. Van Persie's golden touch Robin van Persie for the Golden Boot. I would like to see Holland do well. They seemed to run out of ideas at the Euros – like Arsenal there's no plan B. But Van Persie is looking so sharp and is fresh after being out for much of the season. As for talk of players being tired after long campaigns – don't mention that to Alan Hansen or you will get the "we played 70 games in a season with a squad of 15" speech. He has a point, in 1989 at Arsenal we used 15 players over the entire campaign. You won't hear the winners complaining about being tired.
5. The Cape Town buzz The atmosphere over here is buzzing. This country is so up for it. But, and it's a big but, these vuvuzela horns are driving me mad. They start up at 6am when people blow them on the way to work and then continue all day without a break. You wake up to them, you go to sleep to them ... if you can.Reuse content