England progress, but how much further can they go?

The moment that earnt England fans at least one more nervous ninety minutes in South Africa.

England’s improvement against Slovenia, when compared with their performances against the USA and Algeria, was vast; but there is no escaping the fact that it has merely papered over the cracks. That England’s reaching the last sixteen is being hailed as something of a success is as dire an indictment on their performances so far as is necessary – we finished second in a group that The Sun newspaper arrogantly – but correctly – labelled easy: “England Algeria Slovenia Yanks“.

Finishing second may not seem all that bad when we were staring a group stage elimination in the face, but the simple fact is that we will now almost certainly have to beat Germany and Argentina to make the semi-finals – two of our old enemies – whereas if we had won our group as we should have done, it would have been Ghana and then Uruguay. Looking at our performances so far, even the improvement against Slovenia, do we have any reason to be optimistic?

The short answer: no. We don’t have any reason to be optimistic, and that’s coming from a natural optimist. What we do have though, is the knowledge that things can’t get much worse and the hope that England’s vast improvement from the Slovenia match will be matched by a similar improvement in the outing against Germany, which might result in a performance that will give us a hope in hell against Joachim Löw’s efficient young outfit.

Let’s start with the positives from the Slovenia game, and there were a few of them. Firstly, James Milner has a great game on the right hand side of midfield, looking dangerous whenever he got the ball and putting in some cracking crosses, including of course, the one that led to Jermaine Defoe’s all important goal. After a 30 minutes to forget against the US, and Aaron Lennon’s underwhelming performances, we’ve found a right-winger.

Jermaine Defoe was the second highlight, and has really shown up all those who felt that a Rooney/Defoe partnership would not work for England. Defoe provided a focal point to the attack which allowed Rooney to roam around and drop deep as he likes to do without leaving England toothless, as we are when Heskey leads the line, and his pace and work rate was a constant menace to the Slovenian defence. With Gerrard pushing on from midfield, there was some nice interplay between the front three that showed plenty of promise.

However, though Gerrard’s linking with Defoe and Rooney was the source of a lot that looked good about England – indeed Gerrard had a good game, and we want more of the same from him – the simple fact is that England were unbalanced. While Ashley Cole got forward with his usual regularity, he had no support in front of him because there wasn’t anyone playing in left midfield for England, and that needs addressing.

At times England looked incredibly fluid and threatening, but there were a number of occasions also when the ball got stuck in the middle with no wide outlet to the left which would have allowed deeper penetration. The trouble is that we are playing three central midfielders, and after all this time it still just isn’t working. Which means that one of either Frank Lampard or Gareth Barry need to be sacrificed for a left winger (who, by default, would be Joe Cole, given that Capello didn’t pick an actual left winger).

The question is, who should stay and who should go? The rational choice would be to keep Barry and drop Lampard – allowing Barry to play his natural holding role and stopping Lampard and Gerrard getting in each other’s way. However, that doesn’t take into account the fact that Gareth Barry has been frankly terrible in the two games he’s played since returning from injury – the man can hardly pass to a teammate and looks a long way from being properly fit. So should we keep Lampard and drop Barry?

Well… that doesn’t really work ideally either. Because in doing that you’re asking Lampard to play an unfamiliar role. Sitting in and anchoring the midfield really isn’t what Lampard is there to do, and I don’t even know if he has the skill set to do it. He could well get caught roaming forward to often and leaving an already fragile defensive line exposed. Unfortunately, the only other option we have in the squad for that role is Michael Carrick. Enough said?

So the midfield remains a conundrum for Capello, because although it worked in fits and starts against Slovenia, we didn’t really see anything at all from Lampard or Barry, and the left side was nothing but a vacuum of dangerous space. Personally, I’d probably go with talent and play our best four midfield players – Milner on the right, Cole on the left, Gerrard in the hole and Lampard sitting a bit deeper. It would need a great disciplined performance from Lampard, but sometimes you’ve got to have faith.

That would allow Capello to stick with the little and little partnership of Rooney and Defoe and would give England a lot of creativity through the midfield and provide the potential for never-ending link ups between the front five. There, I think, is an attack that could worry the Germans and which would definitely worry the Argies if it came to it. The problem we have left then, is that both those sides also have attacks that will frighten our rather measly defence.

We’ve long come to terms with the fact that Glen Johnson is our best right-back even despite not being able to defend very well, and Ashley Cole is one of the best left-backs in the world. John Terry showed last night – making a heroic block and then flinging himself head first at the follow-up – why he is so valuable, but Matthew Upson just showed again that he is our of his depth.

Within ten minutes of the match starting it was clear that the only way he could handle his man was to climb all other him and rough him up a bit – a tactic that is occasionally viable in the Premier League but one that will never work at a World Cup where foreign referees will award free kicks if you so much as look at them funny. Upson, as a result, gave away numerous free-kicks in dangerous positions and was a liability for England.

What’s more, he’s an awful footballer. The amount of times when he opted against playing a pass into a teammate’s feet because it would involve passing between two (quite distant) opposition players and instead went meekly back to the ‘keeper was embarrassing. And if he wasn’t passing backwards, he was lumping it forwards. I’m sorry, but Upson is never international class. Capello needs to play Michael Dawson, end of story.

Whether Dawson would be enough to hold firm against the Germans and Argentinians, I don’t know, but he’s our best bet (even with Carragher back from suspension). Obviously, Capello’s squad selection left him bemusingly short of actual talented centre backs, and so he has brought it upon himself, I just hope he now swallows his pride and realises that the best of an average bunch is the fella’ he initially left out, and plays him alongside Terry.

Unfortunately though, England’s biggest problem is – and I hate to say this – Capello himself. The Italian – known for his need to be in absolute control of everything – is too stubborn for his own good. Reluctant to make changes to the formula that worked in qualifying but now looks hapless, and refusing to play Joe Cole seemingly because the entire country has advised him to do so, while his reliance on a clearly unfit Gareth Barry is embarrassing.

Ultimately, England need to improve vastly if we are to have any hope of progressing past the Germans and into the quarter finals. We’ve made things extremely hard for ourselves so far with some abject performances, and the only positive I can take from it is that we now have two great chances to redeem ourselves – two big performances and wins against Germany and Argentina would restore confidence and support in fans and players alike, and could finally kick-start our World Cup.

Told you I was ever the optimist…

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