No matter how much Fabio Capello has tried to defend England’s performances in all five of the friendlies he has taken charge of, it remains blatantly clear that the team are not currently ready for the daunting trip to Croatia next month.
After previous unconvincing Wembley wins against Switzerland and USA under Capello, and a poor loss away to France, last night’s draw with Czech Republic was an even worse showing.
The team lacked shape, cohesion and stability throughout the game, whilst their opponents provided a lively and classy test that was not passed by England. Every time the Czechs counter-attacked you worried for the home side’s feeble defence, and when the ball was hoofed up to Emile Heskey in the second half time and time again, it made you cringe at the sight of England going back to their old ways. I thought Capello was meant to be stamping his own mark on this team.
Because last night it just felt like a carbon copy of the type of football played under Steve McClaren, and nobody wants that again. It was pouring it down at Wembley as well last night as if to add to the McClaren tribute night feel. Maybe it is Capello’s English that is holding him back from getting across his true ideas and feelings about the team. If that is the case, double lessons may need to be booked.
Capello’s English does not have to be good to pick a balanced line-up though. His midfield choice was baffling to many at Wembley, especially his decision to place Steven Gerrard on the left-hand side of midfield, something he staggeringly denied doing after the match. But the Liverpool captain was often seen in that position, something which must have happened as a result of instruction from the bench. Gerrard is England’s most consistent performer and his talents are wasted in wide positions. From the centre of the park he can drive forward and be at his best. On the left he is just a makeshift.
And on the other flank Capello’s decision making has not exactly been great either. David Beckham remains one of the world’s greatest dead-ball specialists, but he can simply no longer keep up with the pace of international football. David Bentley is a perfect replacement, someone who can take full-backs on and deliver brilliant crosses himself. And he can more than can keep up. Capello has thrown away five golden opportunities to bed Bentley into England’s right-midfield berth, and instead has stuck with his Madrid buddy Beckham. Against Croatia Beckham is likely to struggle more than ever.
One aspect of England’s woes cannot be blamed on Capello though. Throughout the past week all the talk has been of England’s lack of a front man to lead the team’s attacking stars. But surprisingly it was the defence which attracted more quizzical looks last night. For such quality individuals they looked a terrible collective last night. The Czech forwards ran rings around them with their effective runs and passes all evening, and they looked capable of scoring during almost every attack. The four stars, who were all from either of last season’s European Cup finalists, endured one of the most embarrassing experiences of their careers against the Czech attackers, including Premier League flop Milan Baros.
Up front things did look slightly more promising for Capello, with many chances being created especially in the first-half. Defoe and Rooney were not spectacular in any way, but at least they did their job to a certain extent. If Michael Owen ever gets back to full fitness and regains his top form at the same time then he will be the frontman to lead England’s World Cup qualifying campaign. Without him though, and Capello may have more problems.
England were extremely fortunate to escape with a draw last night, thanks to Joe Cole’s late scrambled effort, and Capello’s clenched-fisted celebrations at the end were laughable considering the context of the game.
If World Cup qualification is to be achieved then major improvements are necessary. It will not be the game against Andorra in early September that Capello can finally be judged on, but the trip to Zagreb four days later. Lose that one, and the Italian will be put in the same bracket as McClaren until he proves his worth.