England were taught a footballing lesson by perennial rivals Germany this afternoon as Fabio Capello’s men were sent packing from the World Cup in South Africa. Kevyn Doran sifts through the rubble of the Italian’s fallen empire to find the answer to the question on a nation’s lips this summer: Just what exactly went wrong?
1. System Error
We all know what it looks like. You’re on your computer working on an important document of project, when all of a sudden, it disappears. It’s vanished. Gone, all gone. All that remains is a blue screen, a grey box, and those two dreaded words – System Error. Fabio Capello doesn’t strike me as someone who uses a computer all too often, but surely the 64 year old will be seeing a similar message as he closes his eyes in bed tonight. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard’s inability to form a midfield partnership is English football’s worst-kept secret, so while re-adjusting Gerrard to a more left-sided role against the likes of Slovenia may provide a quick-fix solution, it is not in England’s best interest to deploy one of their best players in a position he is frankly uncomfortable with. Gerrard’s natural instict is to drift infield, dragging his marker with him and further packing the midfield, which may explain the Three Lions’ tendencies to resort to a route one philosophy. England’s lack of a holding midfield player is well documented at this stage, but less explored is the effect this absence has on Gerrard and Lampard.
Neither are players that can influence a game if they are forced to come deep to collect the ball. Gerrard is at his best at Liverpool with what was Xabi Alonso – now Lucas or Alberto Aquilani – forging a link between defence and midfield and giving their captain the ball to create that second link between midfield and attack. Likewise at Chelsea, who prefer to move the ball out of defence using their full backs and then bring the ball infield to Lampard (usually from the left) or continuing their attack through wide positions. In theory, Gareth Barry should be the man to provide the defence-to-midfield link for England, but for one reason or another, it’s a role he shies away from. Instead, the full backs are charged with bringing the ball forward, or more commonly, a route one approach is taken. Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson are far and away the two best attacking full-backs in the country, and one should feel confident in their ability to bring the ball up the pitch. But they rarely passed the half way line today, and this summed up England’s inability to convert the dispossession of Germany into an attacking opportunity of their own.
Gerrard’s habit of cutting infield from his left position is understandable given his role at Liverpool rarely takes him to that side of the pitch. There is even an argument for Frank Lampard being a better option on the left, as seen by his tendencies to drift to that side at Chelsea (whether this is natural habit, or instructions from Carlo Ancelotti is another thing). This is evident by taking a look at Lampard’s interaction with the ball during Chelsea’s games with Aston Villa and Portsmouth towards the end of the season, two of his best performances of in a blue shirt in what was statistically his best season with the Blues.
Instead, this role is offered to Steven Gerrard and it just doesn’t work. For me, the buck either stops with Capello, or Gerrard himself. If Capello is instructing the Liverpool skipper to drift infield, then surely he sees that a) it hampers Ashley Cole’s ability to get forward, an important aspect of the full back’s play at Chelsea, and b) it leaves the team lob sided and the opposition find it easier to snuff out attacks. If it’s Gerrard’s instinct himself, then he should take a look at James Milner. Although initally a winger in his early days at Leeds and Newcastle, Milner has rose to prominence and an England call-up thanks to his midfield performances for Aston Villa last season. Despite being charged with this role at Villa, Milner shows discipline on duty with England and holds his wide position, much unlike Gerrard. Their average position on the pitch against Germany today shows the difference in approach to what should be two similar roles between Gerrard and Milner.
The lack of an aforementioned “destructive” midfield player places a huge burden on Gerrard and Lampard. At their respective club teams, they are afford the luxury of having two of the best defensive midfielders in the game in Javier Mascherano and Michael Essien (or understudy John Obi Mikel) marshalling behind, allowing them to shirk their defensive responsibilities to some degree when presented with an opportunity to attack. On England duty, if they surrender the ball, they don’t have that player behind them because Gareth Barry also takes advantage of any opportunity t0 get forward (he himself has the impressive Nigel De Jong as cover at Man City). Indeed, this has never been more evident than it was today for Germany’s third, and potentially decisive goal, when Barry – who ideally should be hanging back from set pieces – surrendered possession on the edge of the German penalty area. Just 13 seconds later, Thomas Mullar had the ball in the back of David James’ net. Muller often found himself in more central positions than he is used to today, and this is solely down to the defensive frailties of Lampard, Gerrard and Barry.
2. False Prophets and Promises
Fabio Capello was seen as the ideal candidate to deliver glory to England once again after 44 years of hurt™, and an impressive CV combined with an impeccable qualifying campaign had seen Capello begin to deliver on such a promise. But could it be that, in the presence of the inevitable media scrutiny and hype, the usually untouchable Italian started to waver? His earlier promise to pick his squad based on club form now seems nothing more than a media-friendly sound-bite. Why else would Darren Bent be sitting at home this summer, while Emile Heskey takes up space on the pitch? Heskey, for all his hard work, should be nowhere near the starting 11 of a team with World Cup winning aspirations. He’ll give you 100%, but as Aston Villa fans will testify, that effort rarely manifests itself in the form of goals these days. Heskey’s inclusion is to the detriment of Wayne Rooney’s ability to impact a game (by Capello’s own word, Rooney should not even be in South Africa this summer, but more on that later). Rooney is at his best leading the line, as his phenomenal season at Old Trafford suggests. With two wide players in support (Nani and Valencia at Manchester United), Rooney is at the top of his game but with Heskey alongside him, he only has scraps to feed off of. In his defence, Heskey does win the majority of long balls directed towards him, but he doesn’t deal with the attention of opposition defenders hassling him effectively and as a result, the ball usually bounces off of Heskey to the other team, and possession is squandered. Even more confusing was Capello’s decision to leave Adam Johnson behind. Defence aside, Capello has only brought one left-footed player to South Africa, and that’s Gareth Barry. Why Capello would insist in their Plan B being the exact same as their Plan A (shunting a right-footed player to the left wing) is a mystery. Would it really have been a bad move to leave one of Joe Cole, Shawn Wright Phillips or Aaron Lennon behind in order to accomodate Johnson, who has been magnificent for Manchester City since making the step up to the Premier League?
“It’s very important for me that the players that I decide to put in the squad are playing (for their clubs) and are getting games. It’s impossible to be fit if you don’t play” - Fabio Capello (August 2008)
So why play James Milner against the USA? Why bring David James, and then act like Robert Green was first choice all along? Why bring Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand (initially) and Ledley King? All Fabio Capello seems to have done was give the likes of Adam Johnson, Darren Bent and Tom Huddlestone the false hope of something to work towards; their great seasons went ultimately unrewarded. So what should England’s line-up have been had Capello kept his word about form and fitness? In my opinion, the following – while it may divide opinion – would certainly have put up more of a fight today.
Ultimately, England’s downfall came as a result of poor management. Capello had the wrong squad, the wrong tactics and the wrong mentality and his position as England manager is no longer tenable. As for the “Golden Generation”, another major tournament has passed them by and the immediate future looks bleak. Until a manager is introduced who can disregard reputation, player-power and the media scrutiny that comes with such a position, England will continue to flatter to deceive. Fabio Capello was that man. Now, he joins McClaren, Eriksson, Keegan, Hoddle and company in the long list of managers who could not tame the Three Lions.