England need balance, width and new centre-back pairing

England start their qualifying campaign for EURO 2012 on Friday, just under four months since their 2010 World Cup campaign got underway with a draw against USA. After a World Cup of heartbreak and woe many England fans are still suffering from an almost-clichéd World Cup hangover.


The England faithful have bemoaned the lack of passion and grit shown by the England players chosen in the World Cup. The lack of balance in the team, though, was a huge factor in England crashing out of the World Cup to Germany in the last-16. With Steven Gerrard being given a free-role to roam across the midfield Capello’s side struggled to keep the shape of the predictable 4-4-2 formation. Gerrard was predominately used out on the left, another complaint from England fans, and this resulted in a more narrow approach to the opposition. Gerrard clearly wants to play in the middle of the pitch and therefore forces his way into the middle, which means that whoever plays on the right wing for England, be it Aaron Lennon or James Milner, has no chance of getting any space as the opposition slowly move more towards the right-hand side of England’s attack as there is never anyone on the left wing, unless the full-back is pushing on.
The debate of whether Gerrard and Lampard can play together has now rumbled on for far too long. Clearly, two great players such as these two should be able to play together but, without the comfort of having a strong, usually foreign, defensive midfielder behind them is not there when playing for England. Lampard is injured and therefore was not included in the latest squad to face Bulgaria and Switzerland, meaning that Gerrard is surely going to start in the middle. With Gareth Barry acting as the defensive barrier and link between defence and attack, Gerrard should be able to push on and support the chosen striker.
My England team for
forthcoming matches
The problem of the wings has been very apparent for England for a long time. Not since Chris Waddle have England had a ‘great’ winger, although Theo Walcott’s recent goal scoring form and general performances show why Sven took the youngster to the World Cup in 2006, albeit extremely prematurely. The Arsenal forward has scored four goals in three appearances this season, with one assist, and looks a stronger, more assured player than recent years. His sheer speed will strike fear into the hearts of any full-back, and his new-found composure on the ball is a delight to see as an England fan.
England do have two contenders to play in front of Ashley Cole on the left wing. Adam Johnson has improved immensely since his move from Middlesbrough to Manchester City and the winger, after an impressive performance against Hungary, will definitely be the favourite to play down the left, as his speed, quality of crossing and composure will be hugely beneficial for England. Ashley Young is another candidate for the left-midfield position, although Young is another player who likes to cut inside and use his right-foot, which could cause problems for the balance of the England team. Young is also quite inconsistent but it would be nice to see the Aston Villa winger get a chance to show what he can do. Although the wingers should stick to their respective touchlines like glue, they may be able to swap wings from time-to-time, much like Manchester United and Barcelona do. This, however, should only be done if the shape of the team can be maintained.
Wayne Rooney has come under criticism recently for his lack of goals and somewhat jaded performances. The striker has only scored one goal (a penalty against West Ham at the weekend) in competitive football since the end of March; a point which has become almost tedious as the media use it every time Rooney’s name is mentioned. However, the twenty-four-year-old seems to be regaining his fitness whilst also getting his appetite for the game back; the goal against the Hammers should act as the catalyst that gets Rooney’s season going. Gerrard and Rooney play well together and so, even though many will say that Rooney can not play up front on his own, the striker is the right choice to field against Bulgaria and Switzerland. The support of Walcott and Johnson will also mean that Rooney is not really acting as a lone striker as the attacking force of the two wingers and Gerrard along with Rooney could turn out to be a front four if the game requires it.
As always, the attacking side of England needs to be aided by the defensive capabilities of certain players. James Milner will have to play a more conservative role than Gerrard, although the Manchester City midfielder will be able to move out left and right, whilst also pushing forward with attacks if needed. Gareth Barry needs to be solid in the centre of midfield as the two full-backs and wingers push forward, meaning that Milner’s teammate has to act as a link between defence and attack whilst maintaining a strong stance at the heart of the England side.
Another key position for England is in goal. Joe Hart’s magnificent recent performances for Manchester City mean that he is the clear choice to be number one, while Birmingham’s Ben Foster and West Brom’s Scott Carson are both good young players. Hart’s shot-stopping, reflexes and brilliant distribution of the ball will be of huge importance to England; if Hart can get the ball out to Walcott or Johnson early, England will be able to attack with pulsating speed.
Distribution from the back is always important and, with Rio Ferdinand and John Terry both out through injury, England will need to include a new centre-back pairing. The injuries give Capello the chance to have a look at the less-experienced centre-backs as Terry and the captain are ever-present figures in the Italian’s side. Joleon Lescott is back in the England squad after a short period out of the side while Matthew Upson returns after a poor World Cup. It is Michael Dawson and Phil Jagielka, though, who should play together at the back.
Dawson: Ready for step-up
The Tottenham defender has had a strong start to the season and, after an excellent debut against Hungary, looks be ready for more international football. The twenty-six-year-old is dominant when tackling and powerful in the air, whilst also possessing good speed across the ground. His passing is also good which could be another outlet for England as they look to release their speedy wingers to create counter-attacks.
Jagielka has settled back into the Everton side very nicely after spending most of last season out injured, and now the twenty-eight-year-old will be looking to gain his fifth international cap for England. The Everton defender started his career as a central midfielder and, because of that, his passing range is excellent. His positional play is arguably better than former-captain Terry’s is, and his determination and grit whilst playing at centre-back can only be admired. The Dawson-Jagielka central-defensive partnership may surprise some fans but, with Upson struggling to gain any sort of form in a poor West Ham side and Lescott still lacking when it comes to consistency and reliability, Dawson and Jagielka would be the right choices to play for Capello’s side.
On the left of this pairing, England have one of the best left-backs in the world in Cole. The controversial Chelsea defender is quick enough to put most defenders under pressure, while the twenty-nine-year-old has also improved the defensive side of his game since his move to Chelsea from Arsenal in 2006. It is an Arsenal defender, though, that should play at right-back. Although Kieran Gibbs is more used to playing at on the left, it could do the twenty-year-old defender good to play out of position. Glen Johnson has not looked solid in his defensive duties for a long time and, although he is good going forward, Gibbs more than matches him in this area. Gibbs has played at right-back before and shouldn’t struggle that much behind Walcott; Bulgarian right-midfielder Martin Petrov is yet to his reach potential since his free transfer to Bolton Wanderers in the summer, while Switzerland do not really possess huge threats down the wings.
Georgi Peev: Threat
Bulgaria’s all time leading goal scorer, Dimitar Berbatov, recently retired from international football which means that the Tricolours look less-than-powerful going forward. The Manchester United forward was Bulgaria’s most potent threat and the fact that he will not be playing will be a huge boost to the England defence. Former Manchester City striker Valeri Bojinov is Bulgaria’s best striker out of the players that manager Stanimir Stoilov has picked, while Georgi Peev is a threat down the right-hand side for Bulgaria. The midfielder has made nearly 300 appearances in his career and the thirty-one-year-old is well known to have good crossing ability. Cole, though, should be able to deal with the FC Amkar Perm player.
Switzerland do have a couple of familiar faces in their squad, with Manchester City reject Gelson Fernandes and Swiss legend and captain Alexander Frei among Ottmar Hitzfield’s side. Central-midfielder Gokhan Indler is a tough-tackling, determined player, although Barry should be able to control him as England look to move on from the debacle that was the World Cup.
Although this England side is not full-strength, it is a side that should be beating Bulgaria and Switzerland. If Capello needs to look to the bench to bring on someone to change the game he has the goal scoring prowess of Peter Crouch, Darren Bent and Jermain Defoe, with Shaun Wright-Phillips also another option to play down the wings. Bent has started well this season (scoring four goals in four games for Sunderland so far) while Crouch scored a hat-trick to secure Tottenham’s progression into the Champions League for the first time in their history.
England, and Capello, will need to put in good performances in both games if they are to win back the hearts of a nation that has suffered year-after-year, tournament-after-tournament; anything less than comfortable victories will be simply not good enough.

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