Friday, 21 November 2008

A good week for English football

For the first time in over a decade, I'm actually starting to enjoy watching England. Capello has achieved what I thought impossible - he has converted England into a team who can keep the ball, even under pressure. The days of kick-and-rush, where "passion" came before any semblance of technical ability are behind us.

In many ways, the performance on Wednesday night was the most accomplished yet by England. Germany weren't great, admittedly, but the fact that England were a constant threat and Germany never looked like scoring throughout the entire 90 minutes tells its own story. The crazy mix-up between Terry and the hapless Carson meant that the scoreline flattered Germany. Had England been able to field better players than Wright-Phillips and Defoe in attacking positions, things could have been a lot worse for the Germans. Absences in attack had their benefits though. Agbonlahor made a fine debut - his record in big games is excellent at Villa and he seems capable of taking that into the international arena, and Downing gave by far his best performance in an England shirt. Both will make good options from the bench in future.

The most impressive area was in the midfield, where Carrick and Barry gave us another possible answer to the Gerrard-Lampard conundrum. Play neither. As someone who has watched almost all of Michael Carrick's games for over 2 years, his performance did not surprise me. It is easy to underestimate Carrick if you don't watch him often. He is not as quick as Hargreaves and cannot tackle as well, nor does he have the exceptional technique and range of Paul Scholes, the dynamism of Gerrard or the goalscoring threat of Lampard. But as an overall package he's excellent, and he is fortunate that his game is ideally suited to the demands of a modern central midfielder. Barry is similar, a player that impresses me the more I see him.

Many teams at international level play with three players in the centre of midfield, and virtually none play with more than 2 or 3 out and out attackers. Capello's England side plays with a striker supported by 3 flair players (usually Rooney, Joe Cole and Walcott), making 4 out and out attackers. Although all 4 work hard, tracking back and dropping into the centre to help out in the engine room are pretty low down on their list of priorities. This makes it doubly important that the central midfielders are disciplined and maintain possession otherwise the team risks being overrun by sheer numbers. There is little room for flair in the centre of midfield, although of course the passing should be incisive at times rather than cautious. Lampard has shown signs recently that he is able to adapt his game to a more disciplined role (at Chelsea he plays in front of two holding players so he is not required to be as disciplined with his positioning), but I would question whether he is as good in that position as either Carrick or Barry, though his set-pieces are excellent.

From what I have seen, Gerrard is patently not able to adapt his game. His positional sense is average at best, and I regularly lose count of the times that he leaves acres of space behind him having embarked on a forward run. Though his range of passing is superb, his discipline is again very average. He is incapable of playing any more than 3 or 4 simple passes before attempting something hugely ambitious. Game in, game out his pass completion rate is around the 75% mark, which is nowhere near good enough in an international midfield. Gerrard has scored 14 goals and made 8 assists for England. This amounts to a major contribution every 3 or 4 games. If Gerrard doesn't score or set up goals (i.e. one of his "Hollywood" passes comes off) his performance in the centre of midfield will never be anything better than average. Against top quality opposition you may not get the ball back for 5 minutes if you give it away. If you give it away every 4 passes as Gerrard does in a position where keeping the ball is vital, your team is going to spend a long time chasing shadows. Rafa Benitez has seen this at Liverpool, which is why Gerrard is played either behind the striker or on the right in all their big games.

England fans still cling to this anachronistic notion that all midfielders have to be either big tacklers or goalscorers. Ever since David Platt, our midfielders have been judged by their goals. Around the turn of the millenium I watched many games where Paul Scholes would play nearly twice as many passes as anyone else, completing around 90% of them, yet he would still get slaughtered because of his "goal drought". No wonder he retired from international football. He's a midfielder, for Christ's sake! Forwards are supposed to score you goals, and while it's great if your midfield can chip in from time to time that should not be the criteria for selection. Kevin Nolan scores a few goals, but I can promise you he's among the worst midfielders in the Premiership. Tackling is less important now, what with referees penalising even the most mild challenges nowadays. Tackling has been replaced by holding your position and "getting your foot in".

Both Barry and Carrick fit the bill perfectly. Both are positionally aware. Both are accurate and incisive passers of the ball. Both are strong and can get their foot in. For all my criticism of Gerrard, he is still a fabulous footballer when given the licence to thrill. He would certainly fill one of the three "flair" positions, probably on the right with Walcott dropping to the bench. As for Lampard - he's a terrific player, but he may just have to settle for a place on the bench.

Whatever your personal view (and this is just my own take on things), it's great to see England with such an embarrassment of riches. Right back and goalkeeper are still not settled, but Wes Brown and James are adequate for now and are unlikely to let the team down.

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