Robert Green’s U-8 howler will go down in history as the reason England failed to beat the USA in their opening World Cup encounter on Saturday, but for me the problems lay in coach Fabio Capello’s selections, and his substitutions.
For one thing, Green’s confidence will not have been boosted by the fact that he was a last-minute selection. Best to have your ‘keeper a settled choice months before the tournament, allowing him to play without fear that any one game could be his last. (And it’s a safe bet that after allowing Dempsey’s tame shot to squirm out of his hands and into the goal for the USA equalizer, Saturday will indeed have been Green’s last game at the World Cup.) Of course, you can sympathize with Capello in that he has a very limited pool of options, but that’s a problem he has in a few positions, and successful international coaches are those who best make do with what they have.
The second questionable selection was that of Ledley King to partner John Terry in the center of England’s defense: Nothing wrong with his abilities, of course, but the problem is that everyone knows King has a perennial knee injury that had cast doubt on his selection for the squad in the first place. To start him in a game where he was forced to give way early on because of that injury not only disrupted the defense and wasted a substitution, but the fact that Capello replaced him with Jamie Carragher was even more questionable. Any Liverpool fan can tell you that Carra is well past his prime, and often lacks the pace, now, to neutralize the threats his fine reading of the game identifies. As a result, he gives away fouls, forced to bring down players who’ve outrun him. That earns the opposition free kicks, and could even earn a red card. Better to start with either Upson or Dawson.
Although a lot of England fans grumbled about Capello picking Heskey to partner Rooney, that was the right move — Heskey isn’t there to score goals, he’s there to hold the ball up, knock it down for Rooney or Gerrard/Lampard, and make a nuisance of himself with his physical presence. And he did that brilliantly, setting up Gerrard’s opener.
But it was in the midfield that Fab made some questionable decisions: To start a World Cup game without a holding midfielder to anchor them and set the tempo, instead relying on Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard — both of whom love to bomb forward and join the attack; neither of whom is particularly disciplined or effective in a defensive role or in orchestrating the play — was a risk. Picking both is one way to solve the problem of having two players so similar and of comparable talent, and England doesn’t have a sublime holding player, but even then, Gareth Barry or Michael Carrick would have given the team more balance. Then, giving a start to James Milner when he had not yet recovered from his flu was another gamble that failed. Milner was invisible before he went off, to be replaced by Sean Wright-Phillips — an even more inexplicable choice, give that SWP is a right winger who was now being forced to play on the left. He, too, had no impact on the game. The obvious choice on the left would have been Joe Cole, the one player in the England squad with the guile to unlock a tight defense.
Capello has opportunities to correct his mistakes, and his is an unenviable task given the resources available. (Sure the English premiership is the league watched more than any other around the world, but there are few Englishmen in its teams…)