Frankly, England has a problem similar to that of mine when I play football. I’m a quality player, a rampaging right back in the mold of Dani Alves, since I’m still at that age where I have boundless energy from a mystical source. I can get myself in a good crossing position, and honest to God, I’m world class in pick-up games. And then I get nervous. Because there’s so much pressure.
Thankfully, the only way to deal with pressure when an entire nation has its eyes upon eleven men, plus one muffled Italian in a suit, is to take it off. All of it. So I’d like to start off by thanking John Terry for being a muffled example of racist scum, even though one, I don’t know what muffled means, and two, it’s only alleged. And I’d also like to thank Capello for doing the right thing and resigning, because with the amount of quality in England’s side, there is no reason to have a(n) I̶t̶a̶l̶i̶a̶n̶ closed-minded manager. So there’s the pressure off of England’s select 23. Might as well enjoy themselves now.
But there’s one thing I have to address that I touched on in the previous paragraph which may have surprised you: “The amount of quality in England’s side.” I know English fans — unlike my fellow Americans, many of whom claim Clint Dempsey is a world-beater — are perpetually pessimistic about their national side’s squad. Now while there is something admirable about the nation who invented the sport maintaining a non-elitist attitude, there’s also the need to point out a few things. England can win the Euro 2012. And I firmly believe in their chances.
Time and time again, England has supposedly found its “perfect formation”, only to have it skewered by a lack of luck or a lack of common sense. In the case of Jack Wilshire’s injury and the niggling ankle problem of Steven Gerrard’s, it was the former. A more devastating trident than Parker-Wilshire-Gerrard is not likely to be unleashed at international level. (Yes, I’m aware of the Barca-boys from Spain, but I said “not likely”. We play percentages here). The World Cup was an example of the latter, with Gareth Barry as a lone holding midfielder, Gerrard fixed in on the left, and Emile Heskey.
So enter the golden boys from the U-21 team who confirmed what many already knew, and that is that English players are unable to cope with pressure. In Denmark last summer, Jordan Henderson was punished for his lack of mobility, while Welbeck and Sturridge’s contributions were limited to long range shots. A lack of fluidity and system was apparent. And the results showed that.
Which brings me to my point. I’ve come up with a series of radical suggestions for England this summer. Here they are.
1. Play Three at the Back and Two Wingbacks
Four years ago, a team with Andriy Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko, Yuri Zhirkov, and a few other half-decent players outdid their own potential and reached the semi-final of the European Cup. The previously mentioned Yuri Zhirkov earned himself a move to Chelsea after impressing in a marauding left wing-back role. For equal measure, he was protected by a back three of Ignashevich and the Berezutsky twins. Moreover, the magic of Russia’s system was that it had the ability to transpose into a back four in two different ways, with either of the wing-backs pushing on and Alexei Berezutsky occupying either full back role. And it worked.
Similarly, England’s strength lies in the versatility of one man: Phil Jones. Although he has produced some suspect performances in his first season at Old Trafford, the 19 year-old is an ideal sweeper in this system. John Terry should take up a role on the left side of a back three, a role he usually occupies for Chelsea. On the right side of central defence is Micah Richards, the Renaissance man. He has been playing at right back for City this year, but is blessed with a strong physical presence that makes him more than adept as a central defender.
My wing-back roles go to Ashley Cole and Kyle Walker, assuming the former recovers from an injury he picked up in recent weeks. If Cole is not available, Leighton Baines is a more than able understudy, especially as a wing-back. At certain times this season, it has been embarrassing how reliant Everton have been on the former Wigan man. Overlapping, all three of Cole, Walker and Baines have proven to be devastating. None of that should change in Poland/Ukraine this summer.
2. Leave Gerrard out of the Starting 11; Replace Him with Leon Britton
I’ve mentioned before that England fans are traditionally non-elitists, but the same cannot be said for fans of the Kop. Liverpool talisman Steven Gerrard does not have the same legs anymore, despite any insistence from the Liverpool faithful that he is immortal, therefore does not suffer from old age. Unfortunately, even though his passing range is still intact, he is not fit enough to undergo a month of rigorous international matches. Creative players like Gerrard, who rely on “footballing feet” rather than a “footballing brain”, tend to have shortened careers. Just look at every single Brazilian attacker in the past twenty years.
On the other hand, Leon Britton is 29 years old, with an entire season’s top flight experience. Although he does not currently hold any caps for England, his simple approach to the game is something that can be implemented in a heartbeat. A modest career means he does not have the spoiled super-ego often associated with the failed generation of England’s players. Instead of recalling Paul Scholes, a call-up for Britton is a good idea. What could go wrong if “The English Xavi” is playing?
3. Play Lampard Up front
This goes with the Swansea approach: If Danny Graham is a pacy striker that can run in behind defences, then I’m Canadian. But the former Watford man has been a success in the Premier League, simply due to him being a step ahead of the rest. He knows where to put himself about, and he’s not afraid to fire a tame shot if it means getting a shot away at all. I’m not saying call him up for England; clearly, he doesn’t possess the proficiency you would expect of an England striker. Then again, who does?
Frank Lampard. It’s been clear for some time that the aging legs of Lampard are controlled by too much of a brilliant footballing brain to be wasted in a slugging midfield role. He is known for his proficiency in front of goal, despite his infamous drought in international tournaments. The way he moves into the box and receives the ball at his feet is something no other England player possesses, including Wayne Rooney, whose task for England has often been single-minded goal scoring. No, Lampard is an eager warrior.
When Rooney returns, he should occupy Lampard’s position. But against France and Sweden, it’s the Chelsea man who should harbour the goalscoring burden.
4. Welbeck on the Left, Young on the Right
This suggestion is the least radical of the four, for a couple reasons. The first one should be that despite diving allegations, Ashley Young has been in stark form after a mid-season injury threatened his chances of a plane ticket to Poland/Ukraine, while Welbeck has been just as impressive. The second reason has to do with comparing Stewart Downing, Theo Walcott, and James Milner, Capello’s other preferred wide players. You’re left with Welbeck and Young.
Another reason Welbeck and Young should be utilized as wingers rather than using Welbeck as an out-and-out forward is because of their potential to counter and the quality of their hold-up play. On the left, Ashley Cole overlaps less often than Kyle Walker for his club but has always shown that he relishes the opportunity to get down the touchline. For this reason, Welbeck is his perfect complement as he normally looks to come inside when playing on the left for Manchster United. On the other flank, Ashley Young has shown his tendency to move into the center from wide in support of the lone striker, which will allow Kyle Walker to exhibit the marauding skills that have seen him win PFA Young Player of the Year. Anyway, Young and Welbeck, as shown in other similar front threes such as Lavezzi-Hamsik-Cavani, can swap wings and wreak havoc. Defences across Europe should beware.
Preferred Starting 11 (Without Rooney):
The main theme seems to be proficiency, which is the only fool-proof solution to pressure. If you look at the squad, there are players such as Terry, Parker, Lampard, Cole: experienced leaders, all of them. Then there is Jones, Young, Walker, Welbeck, and Britton, five players for the future who have shown enough this season to convince many — namely me — that they have what it takes to perform. In between, Richards and Hart are players who are used to the pressures of a title-race, and are looking to make up for lost time. But think of it this way.
When foreigners started taking over the Premier League, the English brand of football was lost. No longer were players with skills comparable to Gazza and Hoddle getting many minutes of first team football. When today’s game is analyzed, it is not a surprise that Luka Modric and Sandro are starting ahead of Jake Livermore. So how much longer can you use the traditional English 4-4-2, or other similar variants?
If anything, this should illustrate that a surprise tactic is necessary. One thing that England never lost was the quality center-halves and consistent production line of excellent full backs. The amount of goals scored by England’s midfielders in recent years and the overall quality of that area allows for the central midfielders to be highlighted in this 5-2-3. Young and Welbeck have had excellent seasons, while Lampard has shown he still has what it takes to pop up at the right time for Chelsea. If these are not the players, and this is not the system you or I can trust with our hopes for Poland/Ukraine, well then England’s next manager better have something else special planned. Chances are that he doesn’t.
Now only one thing remains: Lots, and lots of pressure.