The England Outsiders #4. The Midfielders
It was often said through out much of the last ten years that England’s midfield was its strongest point. With Beckham in his pomp and Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard ably assisted by a constant rotation of players wedged in to the left midfield position, it often felt a little hollow. In the big games, they disappeared too easily. Until Capello arrived, it was constantly suggested that Gerrard and Lampard couldn’t play together and to some degree it was correct. Yet, great players should be able to fit in to any system, regardless of their natural instincts.
For South Africa 2010, things are very different. Of course, Beckham has no chance to play in the World Cup, which is unfortunate. Gerrard has had his worst season since becoming a first team regular at Liverpool as Liverpool huffed and puffed their way through dull performance after dull performance. Even the ever consistent Lampard had his struggles at the beginning of the season as he tried to familiarise himself with Ancellotti’s diamond formation but has been rampant over the last few weeks.
Add to that the major worries that Capello has on England’s right side. Walcott out of form and in and out of the side, Shaun Wright-Phillips struggling and Aaron Lennon just returning to the Spurs squad. Of course, James Milner could easily slip into that position, but he’s been excellent playing through the middle for Villa this season and the managers quandary becomes apparent. The left side also is far from decided, with Joe Cole, Stewart Downing, Adam Johnson and Ashley Young all having a claim on the position too.
Choices, choices choices but who to take. In 2006, Eriksson chose 9 midfielders in his squad of 23 and in 2002 took 7 midfielders. I’ve already picked 12 out of 23, which means I may have reflectively bump someone from the back line, but I’m going for 7 midfielders to join the squad.Gerrard, Lampard and Barry are all shoe-ins for me, no question. The question is who to add to that trio.
Crucially, James Milner has to be in, simply because he has been consistently outstanding this season. His ability to play on either wing, through the middle and even at right back cannot be overlooked. Sometimes a player who is so adaptable can sometimes be overlooked, but Milner’s case for inclusion is too strong. England’s record cap holder at Under 21 level has now progressed to becoming a valuable member of the squad. He has to be on the plane to South Africa.
That leaves several players scrapping for just 3 places, so best to rule a few out immediately. Adam Johnson, despite some rather unusual clamour for him to be included may find this is a tournament too early for him. He’s not really settled in to the Manchester City side, but is playing regularly but it would be a massive risk to take him as an international novice. Look at Theo Walcott in 2006, he never got a sniff of the first team and it probably cost England that they didn’t take Defoe or Bent instead. A bold move that backfired spectacularly.
Ashley Young is another one who is simply too widely inconsistent to be chosen along with Stewart Downing. Both Villa wing men can be devastating on their day but I don’t feel either can match the 3 wide players that I’ve chosen. Young is also easily got at, defenders can easily wind him up and he retreats into his shell too easily when things go against him. His distribution is so inconsistent as to be astounding, yes he may have pace by the bucket-load but invariably wastes great opportunities.
Downing, for all the clamour for a natural left footer, also flatters to deceive. I have constantly been amazed at the amount of hype this lad has had burdening him for so long because I can’t see what all the fuss is about. I’m assured by Middlesbrough fans he is a fantastic player, but I’ve never seen him have a great game, unlike some of his England rivals. So sorry, no place for him either.
The three I’ve plumped for may be classed as risks, but in the circumstances, all 3 can give us something the other contenders can’t. First up, Theo Walcott. The night he scored a hat trick against Croatia saw him jump in estimation, both in England and abroad. He has certainly continued to improve but still can’t force himself to become a regular at Arsenal. That’s no disrespect towards the lad, but he has been in devastating form for Arsenal when in form this year.
The other two may be the biggest risks of the lot, Joe Cole and Aaron Lennon. Both players have at times shown ability and skill that set them apart and both have benefited from the tutelage of Harry Redknapp. Lennon was highly regarded when he joined Spurs but he would be the first to admit that he’d slightly lost his way a little before Redknapp became manager. Until his injury, Lennon was playing the best football of his career and gave Spurs a thrust down the right flank that they’ve missed since December.
With him only just returning to fitness, Lennon could be a major risk but it could also be a bonus to take such devastating pace that has effectively had a four month break. Cole meanwhile has had similar struggles with injury and has the additional stress of his contract expiring in the summer. He is certain to be sure of plenty of suitors regardless of whether he stays at Chelsea or not. Cole has had a tough season but his grit is extremely underrated. Cole is a fighter, he digs in and he gives 100%, England can ask for nothing less.
So that’s my 7 midfielders for South Africa. Gerrard, Lampard, Barry, Milner, Walcott, Lennon and Cole. With my choice of Ledley King too, it gives us cover in midfield if really required, but I feel those 7 can cover all eventualities. It’s got experience, pace, adaptability and skill. What do you think? Please let me know below: