It was all looking so rosy back in October. Nine wins and just one defeat (against Ukraine) saw Fabio Capello’s side qualify for the World Cup with an ease and style not seen from an England team in a long time. Spearheaded by the magnificent Wayne Rooney, England established themselves as one of the favourites for the this summer’s tournament as they swept aside the likes of Ukraine, Belarus and Croatia – the team which prevented Steve McLaren’s England from qualifying for Euro 2008 – to comfortably book their place in South Africa.
But then, as has become an all-too predictable cycle with England, things started to go wrong. First John Terry was exposed as having had an extra-marital affair with team-mate Wayne Bridge’s former partner, a situation which has threatened to destabilise the England camp and led to Terry being stripped of the captaincy and Bridge indefinitely withdrawing from international football. Then there were the reports of Ashley Cole’s infidelity and, if all that wasn’t bad enough, a cascade of injuries followed. Cole, Rio Ferdinand, Aaron Lennon, David James, Glen Johnson, Jermaine Defoe, David Beckham and, most recently and most worryingly, Wayne Rooney have all suffered injuries in recent months, injuries which have seen the optimism which surrounded England’s qualifying campaign dissipate all too quickly.
However, Capello has refused to let these issues obstruct his focus or disrupt the painstakingly detailed plans the Italian has made for his side’s trip to South Africa. Favouring what is essentially a 4-2-3-1 formation since his appointment as England’s coach in 2007, Capello likes to deploy two central midfielders – with Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard seemingly his preferred pairing – behind a bank of three attacking players (generally two wide players and a second striker in the shape of Wayne Rooney) who support a lone target man, more than likely to be the somewhat divisive Emile Heskey. The formation has a number of positive aspects for Capello, namely the relative freedom afforded to Rooney and, with Barry adopting the holding role, Lampard, the team’s most potent threats going forward. Furthermore, with the tall and physical Heskey acting as a target man, England are able to play some neat passing football whilst also having the option of a long-ball up to the Aston Villa striker, something which gives the team a tactical adaptability not shared by many international sides.
Of course the system, as all systems do, has its flaws. There is perhaps on over-reliance on Rooney to provide the team’s goals – the Manchester United forward scored nine and created another five of England’s 34 goals in qualifying – and, after an arduous season as the attacking fulcrum at Old Trafford, there is a danger that he will be dead on his feet by the time the World Cup comes around. In addition Heskey, who is one of the team’s greatest strengths when on form, can also be one of England’s major weaknesses with his lack of pace and minimal goalscoring threat. Steven Gerrard, one of the world’s bets attacking midfield players, can also find himself isolated out on the left side of Capello’s 4-2-3-1. Most effective in a more central role behind the striker for Liverpool, Gerrard has occasionally found himself negated in a wide role that doesn’t always maximise the added dimension the Anfield man has brought to international football over the years.
There are undoubtedly issues for this England team to resolve before embarking on its World Cup campaign, but this is a talented squad with enough ability to challenge for the top honours come the summer and, with Fabio Capello at the helm, anything is possible for the three lions. Could 2010 bring an end to 44 years of hurt?
Probable starting XI: Green (West Ham United); Johnson (Liverpool), Terry (Chelsea), Ferdinand (Manchester United), A Cole (Chelsea); Barry (Manchester City), Lampard (Chelsea); Lennon (Tottenham Hotspur), Rooney (Manchester United), Gerrard (Liverpool); Heskey (Aston Villa)
The Road to South Africa: 1st place in UEFA Group 6
World Ranking: 8th