Who will score the goals that will win England the World Cup? A simple question, complicated by the fact that Fabio Capello is obsessed with picking Emile Heskey, who hardly ever scores for his country, an approach that failed its latest examination on Wednesday night.
At half-time in Amsterdam, England needed goals. They were two down and Wayne Rooney – around whom Capello has built his team – had scarcely had a shot on target. So what did the manager do in a tight spot? He brought on a goalscorer in Jermain Defoe, took off Heskey and turned the game around.
Sometimes the answer is obvious. Need a goal? Get a goalscorer on the pitch. The praise for Heskey in his recent renaissance in the latter days of Steve McClaren and then under Capello has been unstinting. He makes chances for Rooney, we are told, he unsettles defenders, he causes the damage for others to exploit. Yet the elephant in the corner, the statistic that is almost too embarrassing to mention, is his seven goals in 55 international caps.
The big question is whether, once England are at the World Cup, Capello is prepared to place his faith in Rooney scoring virtually all his team's goals by continuing to pick a striker alongside him who barely scores himself. That is some pressure on Rooney, even with his current run of 10 goals in eight games.
Of course, Heskey has his strengths. He is a robust athlete, he chases back and he has a willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good. That selfishness that characterises so many goalscorers is absent in Heskey: he is happy to be the straight man, the support act, the facilitator. Which is fine until England reach the point in a game when what they really need is a goal.
At the moment we are told that the England manager is in thrall to the man from Aston Villa, so much so that he is watching the likes of Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and Daniel Sturridge this season to see if they could do a job as a proto-Heskey come next summer. The tempting thought is to advise them that the fewer goals they score this season – and the more flick-ons they aim towards fellow strikers, the more heroic tracking back – the better chance they have.
If next summer's strikers were to be picked on goals alone, then it would hold no fears for Peter Crouch. He has 16 goals in 34 caps and, more tellingly, his goals to minutes on the pitch ratio is better than any of the squad's current strikers. Crouch scores every 119 minutes he is on the pitch for England, better than Defoe (one every 130 minutes) and Rooney (one every 156 minutes).
Crouch was left out of the squad to face the Netherlands because he had not played a single pre-season game and is therefore not judged match-fit – a rule that Capello applied less stringently with the likes of Ben Foster. Nevertheless there is a lingering sense that Capello is not convinced by Crouch, whom he regards as not dynamic, not Heskey-like enough. Certainly, Crouch is antithetical to Heskey in one respect: he scores.
Crouch scored 16 goals in a struggling Portsmouth team last season, Rooney managed just one more playing for the champions, Manchester United. Defoe scored 13 goals for Portsmouth and then Tottenham. Heskey, playing for Wigan and then Aston Villa, scored five all season. To make up for his shortfall in goals it would be logical that Heskey should be exceptional in other areas, but is he really that good?
Carlton Cole also fits the Heskey template. He runs about, unsettles defenders and, by and large, does not score many goals. Cole is yet to score for England in three caps – in his defence, he has played just 65 minutes in total – yet the prospect of taking him to South Africa ahead of Crouch is already up for serious discussion. Thus ensuring that England would go to the World Cup with at least two strikers who, history tells us, would be odds-on not to score.
When he discussed Defoe after the match on Wednesday, Capello, with a grasp of English that seems to have deteriorated again over the summer, paid tribute to his striker's goalscoring attributes. "I am happy when he plays with us because he always plays well. He is dangerous. He scores goals. If he plays from the first minute he plays well. When he plays the second half he plays well.
"I like players who are good technically and who are fast. This is important for players who score goals. We have to get to South Africa first, after that I will choose."
Capello mentioned the importance of goals twice which makes you wonder why he has such a fondness for those strikers who do not score. Beyond the front line there are not the goals in this England team that some perceive there to be. Steven Gerrard has 14 international goals but averages one every 403 minutes on the pitch; Frank Lampard has 17 goals and averages one every 314. Given that the group stages of the World Cup encompass 270 minutes, it would be unwise to rely on either scoring more than two in a tournament.
The natural assumption to make is that Defoe's two goals mark the beginning of the end for Michael Owen's aspiration of being the understudy for Rooney in South Africa and certainly Capello did nothing to dissuade anyone of that. The lack of goals from Heskey dictates that the two strikers other than Rooney and Heskey who go to the World Cup will be those who demonstrate decent goalscoring form this season.
Capello has built his success so far on the premise that Heskey is good for Rooney and there is evidence to support that. But what happens, as on Wednesday night, when Rooney is off colour in front of goal and, as usual, no goals are forthcoming from Heskey? The answer is not more of the same with Cole. Rather Capello needs the alternative of Crouch and Defoe, two players who have proved for club and country that they can produce goals.