England shrank when they should have been aiming high

Gareth Barry, after missing the first match against USA through injury, could get the nod in the English midfield against Algeria on Friday. Photo: AP  

Let us hope that Fabio Capello has a good memory. It is quite a while since he had a real problem to ponder. England cannot be in turmoil because they drew 1-1 with a United States side that has a good reputation but parts of the action could have perturbed him as he aims to develop a side intended to cope in the knock-out phase.

The assertion that England played well in Rustenburg is shameless. Capello's side shrank precisely when meant to be reaching for higher standards. The challenge was bound to be stiffer at the World Cup itself but the brittleness of the team was still a surprise.

Circumstances explain some of that and it would have been a boon to send out a fit Rio Ferdinand. In public at least Capello cannot display weakness by lamenting the might-have-beens and, anyway, the £6m salary reflects the expectation that he will be the supreme problem solver.

If he is in luck, a few issues will virtually resolve themselves. Capello got his scheme wrong when positioning James Milner on the left of midfield before the 24-year-old, who had been booked, was taken off for his own good. It is a post of which he has little or no experience. At Aston Villa the main change for him has been the shift from right flank to centre.

There was an excess of confidence if the manager convinced himself that Milner would take to the assignment happily despite having missed three days' training through illness. There were other options. If Joe Cole was ignored for the job on the left because he is not qualified to check the advance of Steve Cherundolo and Clint Dempsey, then England was being too passive.

The answer now looks soothingly elementary. Steven Gerrard can revert to a post in which he had impact during the qualifiers. If there is a misgiving, it lies in Capello's wish to put the accent on resilience in a rigid 4-4-2. If the system is loosened so Gerrard can make runs into the centre, Ashley Cole might find himself isolated at full-back but it has to be emphasised that on Friday, England will meet an Algeria team overcome by Slovenia.

Capello would have been anticipating enhanced organisation then since Gareth Barry is due back from his ankle injury. The Italian gets about as misty-eyed as is ever likely when speaking of the return of the Manchester City midfielder. Barry has become a craze for the Italian. A 29-year-old who made his England debut in 2000 has been awarded 20 of his 39 caps by Capello, who picked him for his first match, the friendly with Switzerland in February 2008.

In theory Barry keeps opponents away from England's penalty area, initiates moves and generally maintains the structure of the side. If team-mates see him in that light, there will be an invigorating relief when he is on the pitch once more. Not all topics, of course, can be addressed by Barry. The ball will go in the goalkeeper's direction on occasion and has to be collected.

The keeping conundrum

At the moment that position must be regarded as Capello's critical question. No matter which goalkeeper he picks, though, he will be less well-served than his predecessors. The incumbent Robert Green, who let Clint Dempsey's humdrum effort into the net, comes not particularly fresh from West Ham's tortuous if ultimately effective relegation struggle.

Another contender, David James, 39, simply took the drop at Portsmouth. Eyes turn to an up-and-coming Joe Hart, back with Manchester City after an encouraging spell at Birmingham, but his three caps have all been awarded by Capello as a substitute. While it can be all but impossible to read this manager's mind, promoting Hart to first choice now would be quite a test for the 23-year-old.

Green could easily be retained on the basis that there were bungles aplenty elsewhere too, even if goalkeeper's are more likely to be ruinous. Whoever is between the posts has more hope of being in command if the centre-backs show authority. Even if Ledley King had not been withdrawn injured, memories would still have lingered of Capello screaming with rage as a leaden-footed Tottenham captain allowed Jozy Altidore a free header.

King out of Algeria clash

Injury will keep King out of the match and on Saturday he had not looked in condition for a World Cup. Previously Matthew Upson was the natural deputy who started in four of the qualifiers but Capello appears to think that a campaign of struggle with West Ham has done him no good. A sluggish Jamie Carragher is a dangerous option and he could have been sent off for a terrible lunge at Robbie Findley's ankle. Michael Dawson's involvement in the rise of Tottenham may therefore stand him in good stead.

While security matters, boldness and risk taking are essential, If Gerrard does rove it will draw opponents away from Wayne Rooney and allow the forward to roam. Some wish he was in the lone striker post he has at Manchester United but Emile Heskey was effective as the target man against the United States.

He did, of course, seize up when there was a prospect of scoring but there is nothing new in that. England, like the other nations, carried their failings with them on the journey to South Africa. The task is for Capello to disguise England's faults better than he did in Rustenburg.

© Guardian News and Media 2010

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 6:30:37 PM |

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