England fans have traditionally been guilty of the sin of not really looking. Reading the English press, there seems a general sense of shock about how their team performed in their first game yesterday. But to a neutral observer, the result, and England’s sorry, tired performance, was not really all that much of a surprise. And while they are still a smart bet to get out of this group, it is hard to imagine an English team with so many obvious deficits advancing very far in this tournament.
Those deficits were visible during England’s disjointed freindlies since they qualified for the World Cup out of the easiest qualifying bracket. Those deficits were on display during a wholly undeserved victory over Mexico at Wembley last month and even less deserved victory over Japan after that, let alone the preposterously close game against a lower South African club team last week. Those deficits were on display as Fabio Capello struggled to appoint a captain who was both mentally stable and physically fit.
Many of those deficits were on full display in their first game against the US.
England has a highly fragile back line. The fact that a continually injured past-his-prime player like Rio Ferdinand needed to be replaced by the even more injured Ledley King who in turn needed to be subbed by someone who had “retired” from the team like Jamie Carragher says all you need about how thin the central defensive talent is in England. That fragility kept Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson from venturing too far forward for much of the game, which meant that the midfield partnership needed to work perfectly. Unfortunately…
After spending the better part of a decade trying to make it work, Steven Gerard and Frank Lampard are still a lousy mid-field team. Other than his opening goal – which was served on a silver platter from some lousy US defending – it seemed like the next time we heard from Steven Gerrard was when he smartly talked himself into a yellow card in the second half. No matter how many coaches employ it, Gerrard and Lampard are not in synch with each other. This pairing is so poor that Capello is trying everything he can to rush a questionable Gareth Berry back onto the pitch for England’s next game and move Gerrard farther out. Although Gerrard does not have the pace necessary to be a great winger, anything would be better than what they currently have, because….
Milner and Lennon were woeful. In Milner’s defense, it is no easy task to take on a great international superstar like Steve Cherundolo (all sarcasm aside, Cherundolo had a good game), but when Capello subbed Milner out after 30 minutes, it was because Milner could only stop Cherundolo by sticking out a foot as he ran by. Milner was so poor that it obscured the fact that both Lennon and later Wright-Philips struggled so mightily to do what wingers are supposed to do – take the ball down the side and send it into the middle. Both English wings were having trouble keeping possession and their crossing almost never hit a target.
Which meant that Rooney and Heskey had to ply their trade outside the box. Simple question for the England fans – why is Wayne Rooney so much better with a Red Devil over his heart as opposed to those Three Lions. Simple answer – because at Manchester, Rooney can stay closer to goal and let those exceptional wingers and strike partners find him. Without those guys, Rooney has to venture out, pick up the ball 25 yards away and try to create something out of nothing. Rooney is a great player, but the English passing game is a giant step-down from what he is used to and it is tough to compensate. As for Heskey, he had a solid enough game to confirm his status as the greatest striker who never scores. Admirable, but it won’t help England to win much.
Finally, in goal, oomph. Robert Green is not Capello’s first choice keeper. Neither is David James. Nor Joe Hart. Unfortunately, that is all he has got. Putting aside Green’s howler, about which enough ink has been spilled, Capello still has the same basic choice to make – should he go with a middling keeper from a poor team (Green or James) or a very young keeper who has little experience at this level of play (Hart). Those are some bad options, and they will not get better anytime soon. I don’t expect any English keeper to serve any more gifted goals up to their opponents during these games, but I also do not expect any of them to single-handedly prevent good teams from scoring.
None of these issues are new. All of them have been obvious for months. When Fabio Capello managed Real Madrid, Juventus, or AC Milan, he was always a quiet, stern figure on the sidelines. In England’s game against the US, Capello looked a little un-hinged – yelling, remonstrating, and stomping the sidelines like an angry bear. It is not a surprise – in order for England to meet the wildly over-sold expectations of their fans, he needs this team to be much better than it actually is. Unfortunately for Capello, he has to play the cards he has been dealt, and the fans that are expecting greatness despite the fact he is holding nothing better than a low pair.