As we head into the festive season, English fans are wrapping the present they give themselves before every World Cup – the gift of unbridled confidence in their national football team. And yet, as they have for the past 40+ years, those English fans are likely to stick their thumb in the Christmas pudding and pull out something far less enjoyable than the plum.
Will England beat the US on June 12? That is the smart bet, but hardly a lock. Will England get out of this group? Barring a complete meltdown, yes. Will they end up crashing out early in the knock-out stage, disappointing their legion of rabid, over-optimistic fans? Without a doubt. The 2010 version of England’s “greatest team in a generation” will again prove that English fans look at their team with such adoration that they constantly blind themselves to their glaring faults.
First, the big picture. This English team is almost man-for-man the same English team that failed to qualify for the 2008 Euro tournament. And yes, Steve McLaren (who, by the way, seems to be doing a great job in the Netherlands) has been replaced by Fabio Capello as manager. And yes, England easily won its WCQ group. But, putting aside the fact that its group consisted of some of the weakest sisters that Europe has to offer, the fact is that in friendlies against quality opponents, Capello’s record is strikingly similar to McClaren’s.
Under both McClaren and Capello, England played freindlies against the Netherlands, Germany, Brazil and Spain. Under McCleran, they lost to Germany and Spain and drew Brazil and the Netherlands. Under Capello, they lost to Brazil and Spain, drew the Netherlands and beat Germany. For what it’s worth, they also lost to France under Capello. England certainly does not look like world beaters under either manager.
But when you drill down to the micro analysis, England’s glaring deficits become exposed. Starting from the back and moving forward, there are holes, questions and vulnerabilities throughout the English lineup.
Goalkeeper – David James or Paul Robinson. Ugh. Are either of these two journeyman keepers in the top ten of the EPL? Let alone World Cup? The fact that Robinson is having a decent run of form at the moment with Blackburn (!!) and may have nudged slightly ahead of James is all you need to know about how weak England is in this position.
Central Defense – John Terry and Rio Ferdinand. John Terry is a leader and a fine pick, but Ferdinand is not what he once was. Not by a long shot. Once they hit the age of 30, footballers lose their skills the way F. Scott Fitzgerald said rich people lose their fortunes – slowly over time and then suddenly all at once. At a creaking, constantly injured 31, Ferdinand seems to be going from the “slowly” phase to the “all at once” moment. Even on those rare occasions where he is fit, he is a step slower both in foot and instinct than he used to be. Of course, if Ferdinand is not fit, Plan B is……..? Mathew Upson? Wes Brown? Ledley King? It makes you want to turn your head in horror.
Left and Right Defense – Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson. Although he is an automatic pick, there was a day when he was with Arsenal when Cole was considered the best left back in the world. His game with Chelsea seems to have degraded a bit, but he is still a good pick. On the other side of the pitch, nobody mixes Johnson up with the best right back in the world. Or the best in the EPL. Or lately, the best on the Liverpool squad. He certainly was not good enough to remain with Chelsea. However, there is no doubt that he is the best the English side has to offer.
Central Midfield – Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard are great midfielders. They may not be the intimidating forces they were a season or two ago, but they are certainly quality players. Unfortunately for England, they seem like almost the same player. This has been the major debate in England over the last five years and it is not yet resolved. In fact, the debate has largely been abandoned. It is now just a given that England will have two midfielders who guide the attack forward neither of whom will be the designated holder. Without that defensive midfielder, you tend to get a lot of this, which knocked England out of the Euro qualifying two years ago.
On the wings – Aaron Lennon and ???? With Theo Walcott spending more time on the training table than on the pitch, Lennon will be probably be holding down the right wing. Lennon is decent enough, but he is certainly not the type of player that will unbalance the major powers in the South Africa. At his best, Walcott may be that player, but with all his injuries, we have not seen that best in a long time. On the left, well, that is a bit of a head scratcher. That slot has been filled by a bunch of people playing out of position lately, including Gerrard, Michael Carrick and whatever other warm body that can be found. Do you know what they call a team that does not have a single natural left winger? A team that does not win the World Cup.
Striker – Wayne Rooney and Jermain Defoe. Although he may not have become the Ronaldo-like figure that he was forecasted to be when he burst on the scene, Wayne Rooney is a good striker. He is tough, opportunistic, and you dare not give him much space. Fortunately for England’s opponents, they can afford to mark him well because England’s other striker is…..Jermain Defoe? Yes, that Jermain Defoe. The one who has bounced from mid-level EPL team to mid-level EPL team over the past decade. Unless England is going to be playing Wigan in the World Cup, it is hard to get too excited. But don’t worry. When the chips are down and you need a little bit of magic to come off the bench and save it for England in the last ten minutes, you can turn to….Peter Crouch? Michael Owen? Oh God, not Emile Heskey? It is hard to find a weaker striker corps than that.
Of course, none of this will really matter until that black day this summer when England again crashes out of the World Cup. Until then, the English fans will spend six months convincing themselves that, with the three lions on their chest , they have the ability to sweep away all who dare to lay siege to the trophy that rightfully should be paraded to the Buckingham Palace and presented to the Queen. Oh well. This Christmas season is made for dreams. Unfortunately for England, June and July will bring the winter of discontent.