Fabio Capello has got his England squad together and in training for the upcoming international matches, a friendly against Slovenia and what could be a decisive World Cup Qualifier against Croatia. Injuries to Rio Ferdinand and knocks to John Terry and Wes Brown will cause him some concern, but centre back is a position in which England are currently very strong, with Lescott and Upson able deputies while Bolton’s Gary Cahill has been called up as very capable cover.
At the other end of the park though, Capello faces a quite different problem. In Jermain Defoe and Carlton Cole he has two strikers who are both fit and bang in form, but the question remains over whether they can successfully partner Wayne Rooney. Heskey and Crouch, who are more natural foils for the scouser, aren’t in such good nick; so how will Capello decide who to pair with Rooney? And where have England’s big centre forwards gone?
A quick note, before we get to the guts of this article – I will be working throughout on the assumption that Rooney will be starting for England. While I firmly believe that every player has to earn their place in the side and none can assume that they’ll be picked, we’d be lying if we said that Rooney wasn’t the first name on the England team-sheet and given his performances for United so far this season, there’s no way Capello will leave him out. So who should partner him?
If it were a question of form, I think Jermain Defoe would be an automatic starter alongside Wayne Rooney for England. With four goals in four league games including a stunning hat-trick against Hull City, Defoe is clearly revelling in having rejoined Harry Redknapp at Spurs and is full of confidence. He’s also probably the most natural finisher that we’ve produced since Michael Own and Ian Wright before him, and so when on form, can be a very potent weapon.
However, I think Capello will have some slight reservations about partnering him with Rooney. So far in his reign as England manager Capello has certainly seemed to prefer playing with more of a target man alongside Rooney, usually in the form of Heskey. This allows England to play with a bit more variation, rather than hoping that either Rooney or Gerrard conjure some magic or Beckham picks out John Terry from a set piece.
And it’s really worked. Rooney has re-found his international scoring boots under Capello and Heskey’s role as target man has been a big part of that. He doesn’t score too many goals does Heskey, but he’s really good at holding it up and cleverly bringing his team mates into play. And when that team mate is Wayne Rooney, the ball more often than not finds its way into the back of the net, especially in his current form, as he’s revelling in his central role at United.
But I haven’t been entirely convinced by Heskey so far this season. He’s only started one of Villa’s league games so far this season, looking pretty toothless in Aston Villa’s tame performance as they went down to Wigan on the opening day. Against Liverpool he came on for a ten minute cameo with Villa already 3-1 ahead but he didn’t get a look in as they beat Fulham 2-0 at the weekend, with Gabby Agbonlahor given a lone role.
And Capello has always maintained since taking over for England that he will always give preference to those players who are playing for their clubs, and playing well. Heskey has had limited time so far this season and not made much of an impact when he has made it onto the park, so should Capello stick with the man who he probably sees as the ideal partner for Rooney, or should he stick to his outlined principles and look elsewhere?
Well, if he wanted to look elsewhere and still wanted to play someone who can fulfill the target man role that he usually gives Heskey, perhaps Peter Crouch will get the starting spot. He provides a similar aerial threat to Heskey without the same physical presence, and is equally adept at bringing players into the game, a part of his play that is often not fully appreciated. He has also proven time and again when playing for the Three Lions that he will find the net, and has a pretty good strike rate of 16 goals in 34 appearances.
However, Crouch also finds himself down the pecking order a bit at his club, with the aforementioned Defoe and Robbie Keane reducing him to only just over 90 minutes of football in four substitute appearances for Spurs as they’ve started their league campaign in fine style. However, he did come up with an important goal for them against Birmingham at the weekend and having played more football than Heskey, we could get the chance to see Crouch once more busting out some ill-advised dance moves against Slovenia.
I hope not though because I think Carlton Cole would be the best bet. While I really feel for Jermain Defoe who fully deserves a starting place, I think a front line of Rooney and Defoe would be too small and would minimise England’s attacking options. Carlton Cole though, is tall, strong and pacy, and has also been in good form for West Ham so far this season, finally beginning to deliver on the promise that has been evident for so long.
At well over 6ft, Cole provides England with the same sort of presence that Heskey and Crouch bring to the side, but he’s distinctly more mobile than either of those players. And while not as natural a finisher as Defoe, he certainly knows where the back of the net is and can strike the ball sweetly, as he showed against Tottenham. Having been ever present for the Hammers this season he fulfills Capello’s criteria and impressed last time the Italian gave him a chance against the Netherlands.
Indeed, at 25 years of age I think Carlton Cole could go on to have a big part to play for England in the next couple of tournaments. Emile Heskey comes straight out of the mould of old-fashioned England centre forwards, and while Peter Crouch couldn’t be said to come from any mould, he also brings that great aerial threat, though he doesn’t really have the brute strength you usually associate with them, instead possessing more talent with the ball at his feet.
However, aside from these two players and Kevin Davies of Bolton, who was tipped to earn an England call up last season, I can’t think of any other English ‘centre forwards’ currently playing at the top level. This suggests that the traditional role of the centre forward in football is dying out, and that the old ‘little and large’ partnership at the pinnacle of a 4-4-2 may be on the verge of extinction.
However, I think Carlton Cole represents something akin to an evolutionary next step. he’s certainly not just a big bruising forward, he’s too lithe of frame for that and probably couldn’t head a brick wall, as the likes of Alan Shearer and Joe Royle would have done. But he does have the athleticism required to cope with the modern day game. Tall and strong, he’s also got a great turn of pace that makes him a much more versatile striker than the old fashioned centre forward.
In many ways, Cole could be seen as a less talented version of Fernando Torres, who is without doubt the finest striker playing football today. Torres too is quick, tall and strong, he’s great with his feet and deadly in the air, and so however you give him the ball, he’ll put it in the net. Players like his Spain team-mate David Villa (who’s Spain’s Jermain Defoe) are quality players, and their pace and positioning make them deadly, but they usually only score one type of goal.
Of course, there’s no guaranteeing that Capello will actually play two up top at all. With Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips in good form for their clubs, it’s feasible that Capello could adopt something of an attacking 4-3-3 formation with out and out wingers. It could work with Gerrard, Lampard and Barry as a solid midfield three, but I don’t think Capello will go that way. He has established a good 4-4-2 system, and I think it’s well worth sticking with it.
And this is why I think Capello would be wise to give Carlton Cole a chance alongside Wayne Rooney against Slovenia. He brings more to the table than Defoe, Heskey and Crouch because he combines aspects of all of their play. While up until now that has made him a rather average player (because he’s good at everything whereas they excel at one particular thing) I think he’s now beginning to mature into the real deal.
At 25 years old he’s heading into his prime, having matured both mentally and physically, I think he’ll become a regular member of the England squad, and if he can form a working partnership with Wayne Rooney then he could very well find himself with a good chance of playing a big part for England in South Africa next year and beyond. So Capello’s selection will be interesting indeed. Does he go with form or tactics, or does he choose Cole, arguably the outsider, who combines a little of the two. Only time will tell.
Have your say:
Who do you think should partner Rooney? Should Capello stick with little and large tactics or should form be the key factor? Is Carlton Cole the answer? Or should Capello change his system altogether?