Sam Wallace: English lessons: what the manager can learn from last two games
Thursday 09 September 2010
Late on Tuesday night somewhere in the back corridors of the St Jakob-Park stadium a crowd of us stood around Fabio Capello as he began to analyse the best performance from his England team this calendar year. Just behind us a hitherto unnoticed service lift opened and a delivery man with a trolley full of soft drinks pallets came face-to-face with one of the most famous football managers in the world.
Quite rightly, Capello made us all move. In fact, he quite enjoyed the sight of a group of deadline-stressed journalists being forced to scoop up bags and coats and shuffle across just as we were preparing for a frenetic, against-the-clock post-match briefing. Hands in his pockets, leaning casually against the wall while the pack re-gathered around him, Capello had the assurance of a football manager back in the winning habit.
It has taken him eight goals and three wins but on Tuesday it felt like Capello had regained some of the ground lost in those awful 25 days in South Africa. If he was not locked in dispute with its creators then the England manager could surely have expected a solid 80 per cent rating on the Capello Index for this performance.
The victory over Switzerland was impressive. Yes, the Swiss were poor but then so were Algeria and England drew 0-0 with them at the World Cup. Yes, it was the tail end of the summer/start of autumn when England team traditionally play better. Even so, Steve McClaren's team lost to Croatia in October 2006 and never recovered their stride in the last European championships qualifying campaign.
There are still a few of the old questions, such as can Glen Johnson really be trusted to defend as well as he attacks? Will England fare as well against France in November and Argentina in February? And will Fabio ever learn to distinguish between the words "qualify" and "clarify"? But at least no one at the Football Association has to confront the question of whether they need to sack the manager before the Montenegro game on 12 October.
Capello's 4-4-2 looks good but may struggle against better teams
In South Africa, it was the 4-4-2 system that Capello refused to abandon even as it became clear that it made him look old-fashioned in comparison to the 4-2-3-1 of Joachim Löw and Vicente Del Bosque. England were exposed in central midfield and never more so than the thoroughly depressing sight of Gareth Barry being left floundering by Mesut Ozil for Germany's fourth goal in Bloemfontein.
Since then Capello has refused to bend, citing Sir Alex Ferguson's adherence to the system in support. At times, Wayne Rooney drops deep enough to make it look like 4-4-1-1 or even 4-5-1 but it will still mean England's midfield being outnumbered in the centre. Playing 4-2-3-1/4-5-1 would mean losing Jermain Defoe and moving Rooney from the deep-lying position to which Capello is wedded to playing him.
Another question is: who is England's second holding midfielder?Frank Lampard? James Milner? Tom Huddlestone? Scott Parker? Jack Rodwell? The game against Argentina in February, scheduled to take place in Copenhagen, will be an interesting test ofthe 4-4-2. The Argentines, you might have noticed, have a few players who can cause a bit of damage in the No 10 position
However much success the 4-4-2 system brings in qualifying there will be huge concerns if it looks like Capello is prepared to stick with it again should England make it to Euro 2012.
Gerrard has proven his leadership credentials in Ferdinand's absence
"It is only the armband" said Capello, when he tried to dodge the issue of whether Steven Gerrard has a chance of hanging on to the job permanently if and when Rio Ferdinand makes a return. Except it is not only the armband, as the Italian well knows. People do care who captains the country.
Instating Gerrard would be harsh on Rio Ferdinand, whose main role as England captain since his pre-World Cup injury has been keeping us entertained on Twitter. You would like to think he would understand if he lost it. But he might struggle to summarise his anguish/sadness/sense of loss in just 140 characters.
Adam Johnson offers England more with every game that he plays
If Capello does stick with 4-4-2 then he has a decision to make on the right where Adam Johnson was a sparkling replacement for the injured Walcott on Tuesday. Every game Johnson plays for England he offers something new; every time he comes on the pitch he has an effect.
A 4-5-1 formation could mean Milner taking one of the three positions in the centre of midfield thus allowing Capello to play Johnson, naturally left footed, on the left and Walcott on the opposite side. Something tells me that Walcott is still best deployed as an impact player, a great asset on the bench. One thing is for sure after a World Cup squad that included neither player: the answer to the question "Johnson or Walcott?" is not "Shaun Wright-Phillips".
England finally have some young prospects who can make the grade
This time last year when Capello was asked about the possibility of young players coming through he would usually reply "Who? Where? Who?" Now there is Joe Hart, Adam Johnson, Milner, Walcott and Kieran Gibbs. Jack Wilshere and Jack Rodwell may have made it by 2012, too.
It is remarkable how much the England team has changed in a short space of team without Capello really forcing the issue. He has not forcibly retired anyone (unless you include David Beckham and even that is now in doubt) rather there has been a natural changing of the guard. Adam Johnson was still in the Championship until January. Wilshere had not started a Premier League game until last month. When good young players come through they tend to do so slowly until, as in the case of Milner, it gradually seems obvious that they should be part of the first team. The exception is Rooney whose stupendously quick impact everyone seems to be measured against.
Lampard will be back but these were a bad 10 days for Terry to miss
The squad for the last ten days was a bad one for John Terry and Lampard to miss. In the case of the former you must wonder how great his appetite is to play for England given how severely his relationship with Capello has deteriorated since February when he was sacked as captain.
There is no point alienating Terry entirely. He has done England solid service over his 65 caps. But if the performance of Phil Jagielka and Joleon Lescott proved one thing on Tuesday it is that we should not panic when faced with the prospect of games without the Terry-Ferdinand axis. Both of them are much older now and injuries and absences are likely to be the norm.
Whether Jagielka and Lescott is the future is debatable, especially with Lescott unlikely to play much this season. But Jagielka is a different prospect. These were a very significant ten days for him. He seemed to earn promotion to the list of Fabio's favourites.
As for Lampard, it has always been difficult to understand the contempt he attracts from some quarters. The last time he was left on the bench was by McClaren for the Euro 2008 qualifiers against Estonia and Russia in October 2007 in favour of – guess what? – a Gerrard-Barry partnership in a 4-4-2. That qualification campaign did not quite go to plan. The moral of the story: don't write Lampard off.
The manager must pick his best XI against France and Argentina
Capello needs to know that England will not be ambushed in the same way they were by Germany in South Africa. When the two sides had last met in November 2008 both had been so depleted by injuries that it was hard to make much of a judgement.
That is what makes the game against France on 17 November and Argentina on, potentially, 11 February so crucial. These friendlies feel like distractions when they arrive and players are withdrawn sometimes, it seems, on the understanding that Premier League managers will be more generous come the qualifiers. Capello has to take a much harder line. He needs his best team to be tested against the best in the world.
With 21 goals in 40 games a role still has to be found for Peter Crouch
Still not sure whether Capello rates his big unconventional striker who has an exceptionally useful 21 goals in 40 caps. He dropped him for the Hungary squad and then picked him for the qualifiers last week before injury ruled him out. The Spurs man offers something different and Capello must still wonder why he brought on Heskey instead of Crouch in that Germany game.
Are Frank Lampard and John Terry still crucial?
Barry and Jagielka's form mean veterans could struggle to regain their starting places.
Adam Johnson or Theo Walcott on the right?
One thing's certain: the answer to this question is definitely not Shaun Wright-Phillips.
Will Fabio Capello's 4-4-2 work against better sides?
The manager must remember how exposed this formation left the team against Germany.
Will Jack Wilshere and Jack Rodwell play in 2012?
England finally have plenty of young prospects who look like they belong at this level.
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