Fabio Capello finds himself in an unusual position for an England manager: having engineered a flawless qualifying campaign so far, he now has two competitive matches which will have no bearing on our chances of qualification at all. We’re in South Africa as group winners, and nothing can change that. Being in this position so prematurely is a rare feeling for us England fans, because England being England, we usually like to do things the hard way.
It’s a lovely position to be in then, but it does leave Capello with something of a dilemma. With matches against Ukraine and Belarus coming up this week, Capello has the perfect opportunity to complete a 100% qualifying record and send us into the World Cup in imperious form. Or he has a perfect opportunity to experiment a bit with some of his players with a view to establishing precisely what he believes his best side to be.
I have to say, I think there are convincing arguments for both options. As an England fan, I of course want to see England win every game that we play and I particularly like to see us do that in style where possible. Now, some will argue that an experimental England side should beat Ukraine and Belarus whatever happens, and that may be true, but these are two good sides that should not be underestimated and it would not surprise me to see an unfamiliar England side approach these games complacently.
What’s more though, I think that one of the key successes of Capello’s reign as England manager thus far has been his consistency and solidity. Right from the moment he walked through the door he seemed to know already how he wanted to play and he picked his strongest team to play in that way. We’ve seen, where possible, a settled England side and as time has gone on we’ve seen players grow into their roles in that side.
For years we have been trying to come up with a system that combines the talents of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Capello though, came in, made up his mind how he was going to approach that problem, explained it to them and let them get on with it. Initially there were doubts but we’ve seen in the more recent games that England can, under Capello, utilise Gerrard and Lampard to their fullest extents. Through playing in a settled side and settled system, they’ve learnt to collaborate.
Likewise, Capello is getting the best out of our other key player, Wayne Rooney. A mercurial talent Rooney’s game often suffers because he tries to do too much, he tries to win games on his own. Capello noted this, and has consistently given Rooney a strike partner to play off. Rooney no longer has to be the focal point of our attack – that’s Heskey’s job, and it frees up Rooney to drift and cause havoc. Again, as time has gone on, Rooney has grown into this role and now looks as deadly as he ever has in an England shirt.
So I think there’s a really good argument that says that Capello should put his strongest foot forward. If he persists with his strongest side in the system that he will look to use at the World Cup itself then it will give the players involved in it more and more chance to familiarise themselves with the system, get used to playing it and learn how their teammates play alongside them. The better that chemistry is by the time we kick off in South Africa, the better chance we’ll have of ending our years of hurt.
However, there are a few flaws with this England side. The goalkeeping position is the obvious one, and while Glen Johnson seems to be Capello’s number two, I’m sure the Italian has his doubts about the Liverpool wing-backs ability to hold up defensively against the likes of Spain and Brazil. Heskey’s form for Villa is a bit worrying too, is he the right man to partner Rooney? Then there’s the right wing position, which is becoming less a problem and more an embarrassment of riches.
Aaron Lennon put in a stunning performance on the right flank in England’s last outing, but then Theo Walcott will soon be back to full fitness and he made quite an impression against Croatia too, scoring a hat-trick in the first qualifying match against them last September. There’s also the strong likelihood that a certain Joe Cole could soon be throwing his name into contention for a place in the starting XI, if he finds his form for Chelsea after a long injury. For now, Lennon will play, as neither Walcott nor Cole are included in the squad due to injury, but it’ll be at the back of his mind.
More pressing temptations for these last two qualifying matches will be Carlton Cole, Peter Crouch and Gabby Agbonlahor. As I mentioned above, Heskey seems to be Capello’s preferred foil for Wayne Rooney but the other striking options in his squad are all in better goalscoring form, indeed they’re all more natural goalscorers than Heskey full stop. Capello may be sorely tempted to give one or two of these boys a run to see if they can’t click with Rooney and add another threat to his side.
Most interesting will be the goalkeeping spot though. David James, absent for a few internationals due to injury, is now back playing at Portsmouth where he’s being kept busy but showing some good form. Other contenders are struggling though, with Rob Green not having looked completely assured in James’ absence and Ben Foster having a torrid time for Man Utd. Paul Robinson was drafted into this squad before injury took him out again and so young Joe Hart takes his place.
So there are plenty of areas in which Capello may be tempted to tinker with his side, and that’s without even mentioning the likes of Gary Cahill, James Milner and Shaun Wright-Phillips who’ve all impressed for their club sides and could do with some experience at this level. So what should Fabio do? Should he stick to his big guns and attempt to stride imperiously towards South Africa or should he take the chance to experiment a bit?
As I said, both are acceptable options, but I think he should go with his strongest side. I think he should do that because I think that’s what he will do, and over the past year and a half or so, I’ve come to trust the Italian’s judgement. He’s a man with a plan, he sticks to it, and things tend to go according to it. Other managers have tended to experiment ‘just in case’ or ‘for the future’ but Capello has his eyes firmly on the prize.
Sure, things could go wrong, Rooney or Gerrard could get injured, but Capello doesn’t need to prepare for that. If it happens, he’ll deal with it but until then he has his plan. And he could give more experience to Cahill and Milner but why should he? His goal is simply to win the World Cup next year and neither of those players will play a main role in achieving that goal. No, Capello is a man completely focused on his objective, and that seems to me to be a very good thing.
When he names his team to face Ukraine tonight, we’ll have a very good idea of who he sees as his number one keeper. It looks to be a straight shot between James and Green at present and whoever lines up in Dnipropetrovsk wearing the green jersey with “1” on the back will have the edge. Capello will stick with that player until he sees convincing evidence not to. By the same token, Glen Johnson will play at right-back for England in every game between now and the World Cup, unless a stronger candidate emerges.
The right-wing slot is less assured because of the absence of Walcott and Cole, but Lennon will certainly start there tonight and if he keeps playing as he did in his last outing then Capello will stick with him. Likewise, whoever gets the chance to partner Rooney will have a golden opportunity to grasp. If they play well between now and the World Cup then Capello will have faith in them. I think he knows 90% of his strongest team and the rest he has a good idea about.
He’ll stick with that team unless he sees a good reason to change it, and that can only be a good thing for our prospects in South Africa. For years we’ve bemoaned friendlies where eleven substitutions occur at half time because they achieve nothing. Capello knows this, he knows that his side will keep improving only if they keep playing in a settled side with a settled line up, and so that is exactly what he’ll do.
Put simply, the side that is named for England tonight would be the team Capello would pick for the World Cup final if it were tomorrow and all conditions were equal to what they are now. While some will doubtless argue eloquently that certain players should be given a chance and many will propose “what if” scenarios that may make experimentation an attractive option, I think Capello will put his best foot forward whenever he names a team, and with him being an organised, composed and determined man with his eyes firmly on the prize, I think that that is precisely the right thing to do.
For what it’s worth then, here’s how I think England will line up against Ukraine:
Johnson | Terry | Ferdinand | Cole
Lennon | Barry | Lampard | Gerrard
Rooney | Heskey
Have your say:
What would you do if you were Capello? Who would be in your lineup? Would you experiment or stick with your strongest side? Leave me a comment with your thoughts below…