Many English fans have a schizophrenic sensation going on every fourth May. On the one hand, every four years English fans enthuse how this team is the “best in a generation” with all their great players having their career peaks at just the right time. On the other hand, international tournaments have brought nothing but pain to England for over 40 years, and there is always this nagging feeling that England is just not as good as the rest of the major nations.
Sadly, I have a message to give to English fans – there is no reason to be of two minds about this. England is simply not good enough, and if you want to avoid a lot of pain this summer, I suggest unplugging the tele, avoiding the pub, and lounging in the backyard with a good book. The fact that England will almost surely get out of its group says far more about its group than it says about England. As soon as they play one of the big boys, England will be exposed and headed home. Why? Here are five of about 50 reasons:
England will not be facing Bolton in the World Cup. Want an interesting fact? There are only two teams in South Africa that do not have a single footballer playing its club football outside its borders. One is North Korea. The other is England. As Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski point out in Soccernomics, this single fact holds England back more than any other in international competitions. By playing all their football in England, its players are trained, oriented and experienced to play an English-style game against English opponents. Over the past 20 years which national team has had more of its players playing in greater variety of leagues? Brazil. The difference in results is very telling, and it is one of the subtle reasons why England always disappoints. If Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and others always seem to shrink on the international stage, if England always seems to struggle against European B teams like Croatia, if they can never conjure up that telling goal when they really need it, it is this lack of varied international experience that is the sub-rosa reason why.
England has problems on the wings. I don’t remember any English team with less talent out wide than this English squad. Shaun Wright-Philips, Theo Walcott, Aaron Lennon, and Joe Cole have all struggled with fitness or form this year, and none of them look like international world beaters. Of this crew, only a healthy Aaron Lennon is an automatic starter for their club team, and he has had only a handful of minutes since Christmas. James Milner looks like a more reliable pick for the Three Lions but only because of the form of others – not because his play has been so outstanding. This is a giant problem for England because in the World Cup, if you are not playing with width, you are not going to succeed. Going down the middle or relying on set pieces against high quality opponents with outstanding centerbacks is not a formula for success, even if you have an outstanding striker corps, speaking of which….
England has Wayne Rooney and ???? up front. This English team is more reliant on one racecar than just about any other major team in this tournament, and that car has been leaking oil and spitting out smoky fumes for the past two months. Wayne Rooney has been pressed into action despite injury all spring as Manchester United battled deep into the Champions League and the title race. This is a man who needed several weeks on the physio table and has barely gotten one. If he is not 100% for South Africa, he is going to have problems because the other England striker is, well, I’m not sure, but whoever it is will be a big drop-off from Rooney. Bent, Defoe, Crouch and Heskey are not exactly the players who will strike fear into the hearts of their opponents. Villa and Torres. Klose and Podolski. Van Persie and Robben. Those are duos that can advance a team. Whoever is paired with Rooney will not exactly be a terror out there.
The 2010 versions of Rio Ferdinand and John Terry are a bit of a mess. Even before Ferdinand missed all but 12 games of the EPL season this year with a variety of injuries, it was clear that he was not the dominating, intimidating presence he has been. He has lost a step and in both foot and mind, and many opponents were getting the better of him. Sadly, Ferdinand may be the most reliable center back England has with John Terry coming off his poorest season and looking like a man in the middle of a breakdown. His two yellow cards against Spurs after he was stripped of the England captaincy reflect his litany of late, violent tackles that may be allowed in England but will lead to cards and expulsions by international referees in South Africa. Like Ferdinand, Terry has had a drop of form in the four years since the last World Cup, but Capello has so few options in the spine of his defense that jalopies like Jamie Carragher are getting a serious look again.
You cannot win without a quality keeper. Even the most partisan English fan knows this is a great weak spot. The best English goalkeeper is probably Joe Hart, but at 23, he has neither the experience nor the caps to take over that position in South Africa. Can Hart really direct Ferdinand, Terry and the rest of the back line with authority and properly position himself when the best strikers in the world come marauding towards his goal? Doubtful. Beyond that, you have David James of the relegated Portsmouth, who has rarely inspired any confidence among the English faithful, and Robert Green of the nearly-relegated West Ham, who has never inspired confidence among the English faithful. In a knock-out competition like the World Cup, having a keeper get red-hot and go on an intimidating streak is almost a requirement for success. That player simply does not exist in England at the moment.
None of these reasons begin to touch on the shallowness of the English bench, the poor record England has against any opponents of worth over the past five years, the way the EPL season leaves players depleted, how the right back position looks dire or a myriad of other reasons why this team is set to disappoint. It may be winter in South Africa in June, but it will be a long hot summer for the English fans who are expecting far more than this team can deliver.