England would rather have Manchester United's Wayne Rooney than not, but Uefa have presented Fabio Capello with an opportunity to instigate an exciting future for the Three Lions.
Hysteria at Wayne Rooney’s petulance has been upgraded into panic now that Uefa have punished him for his kick in Podgorica with a three-match ban. The national team’s talisman whose shoulders have buckled under the burden of unrealistic expectation in past tournaments will be available at the quarter-final stage at the earliest, unless any FA appeal lodged is successful.
Ironic then, that the Football Association have set the precedent which makes success as expectant as Audley Harrison waltzing to the final of Strictly Come Dancing. The pompous blazers deemed Rooney’s heinous act of swearing at a football match as worthy of a two-match ban in April, so a three-match sentence he has incurred for kicking out at an opponent is only logical in the illogical world of football’s bureaucrats. Any appeal is diluted by their own hypocrisy.
Back on the pitch, Spain and Sweden loom on the horizon for Fabio Capello in November, as his usual ground-to-ground visits in the forthcoming weeks and months take on a more complex guise as he attempts to identify an England team without their best player. Ever since Rooney limped out of Euro 2004 with a broken metatarsal, there has been a national fixation with his importance to the national side. Never mind the undoubted qualities of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, it is England with Rooney and England without Rooney.
Over seven years ago in Portugal Sven-Göran Eriksson’s side exhibited a brand of football which belied previous tournament anxieties, and although ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ are deservedly regarded as unsubstantiated straw-clutching, if Rooney had stayed fit England would have had a great chance of winning a major trophy.
Now someone has to reflect Rooney’s own confidence (he boasted that ‘The big man is back in town’ upon returning to the team’s German training camp in 2006) to fill his creative void. The problem is this is an atypical attribute of the majority of English footballers, irrespective of how cocksure they are at club level. Capello is not faced with the sudden quandary of an injured star – for now at least – as has previously afflicted the Three Lions’ build-up to past tournaments, but from now until May he has the opportunity to share around the responsibility of the XI in a bid to quell the notion that England are a one-man team.
The Italian doesn’t have the embarrassment of riches that Vicente del Bosque enjoys in Iberia, where if Spain were to lose Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, they can call upon David Silva and Cesc Fàbregas, so he can only infuse prospects with fearless poise. The caveat is that Capello’s erratic squad selections make the process a lot harder. Daniel Sturridge should be one of the prime beneficiaries of Rooney’s stupidity with international experience yet mysteriously is still to receive a call-up to the senior side and Tom Cleverley, a player in the Spaniards’ Tiki-taka mould, was not presented with his first cap in Sofia or at Wembley last month when the scenario was tailored to his development. Negligent when he offers a similar alternative to the injured Jack Wilshere.
It is feasible that a formation change may come at the expense of Rooney’s absenteeism. Capello currently favours a 4-2-3-1 formation (ignore the 4-4-2 observations) with the insurance policy of Scott Parker and Gareth Barry. But as Gary Neville correctly noted, England’s spine is not good enough, although it can easily be improved upon. Should Wilshere and Gerrard make full recoveries there is the potential for the pair to be complemented by one holding midfielder (probably Parker) in a forward-thinking triumvirate behind two supporters of the main striker.
The Italian doesn’t have the embarrassment of riches that Vicente del Bosque enjoys in Iberia, where if Spain were to lose Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, they can call upon David Silva and Cesc Fàbregas.
Danny Welbeck’s form spearheading Manchester United this season makes him the outstanding candidate, although his inexperience counts against him, if not his self-assurance. But flanked by club teammate Ashley Young and the slick Sturridge, England have pace in abundance and – significantly – balance. A 4-3-2-1 formation has the flexibility to morph into 4-5-1 and its derivatives, with Wilshere sitting further back alongside Parker whilst Gerrard supports or vice versa.
Sturridge’s versatility across the front three makes him an outstanding candidate ahead of the limited Stewart Downing and Theo Walcott. Irrespective of a pinpoint assist against Montenegro, it was the exception from the latter’s characteristic under-hit or over-hit crosses, as well as the failure to engage his brain in the final third of the pitch. Downing has improved over the past 12 months and offers excellent defensive cover for Ashley Cole, but is not as much an asset in attack as Young or Sturridge. Or Adam Johnson, for that matter.
Walcott starting is unviable when it remains debatable whether he should even be included in the squad and if Johnson gets more game-time at City then he may emerge as a starting contender. However Roberto Mancini’s settled quartet of Silva, Samir Nasri, Kun Agüero and Edin Džeko makes it improbable, so he will likely have to tolerate for the impact sub role for the foreseeable future.
Safer options are suspiciously negative and liable to sap England of any zip that they could prospectively display. Darren Bent has scored four times this year in internationals but is one-dimensional and devoid of the required assets that the team may be forced to revert to, Bobby Zamora is the victim of extreme expectations and Peter Crouch, despite his impressive international record – 22 goals in 42 caps – slows down the tempo and is liable to foul more than shoot. Andy Carroll’s private life meanwhile marks him out as a liability, and his footballing ability remains deeply suspect.
With the exception of Crouch and Jermain Defoe, all possible alternatives have not played at a major tournament either. Both Crouch and Defoe have scored at World Cups but are both synonymous with being impracticable inclusions and Walcott meanwhile had a German holiday in 2006. The six other contenders (including Walcott) share 36 international appearances between them and just nine goals with Sturridge the only uncapped option hitherto, although that should change before next summer. The experienced options are disposable relics of past tournament failures which makes the rawer options appealing, especially given how Sturridge and Welbeck are thriving at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford respectively.
Opting for one of the aforementioned battering rams also certifies a direct approach, which by contemporary football standards is as Jurassic as Portsmouth’s Fratton Park. England are not going to cause the Spanish, Germany or Holland concern by pessimistically lumping balls into the box for a target man to get on the end of, hoping that Barry and Parker will be disciplined enough to stymie the inevitable counter-attacks.
Instead Welbeck and Sturridge, two bright sparks who combined well amidst the Under-21s’ flat displays in Denmark this summer, deserve their chance because they are gifted footballers boasting that uncharacteristic English trait of technical prowess. And that youthful exuberance Capello is slowly trusting in is his biggest hope of a successful tournament in Eastern Europe.
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