When Fabio Capello was appointed as England manager he spoke of a selection policy based on form and fitness. This was music to the ears of English supporters who had suffered through the Eriksson and McClaren days of players being picked on reputation. Yet in his squad selection and in England’s opening Group C fixture against the USA he appears to have cast his principles aside.
Ledley King is a player hardly synonymous with the word ‘fitness’ and though his form for Tottenham justified his selection there was a certain inevitability to his failure to appear for the second half on Saturday. The only surprise is that it is his groin and not his knees that went first, but with King now at risk of missing the rest of the tournament Capello’s decision to include him looks foolish.
With Rio Ferdinand ruled out through injury England’s defensive options lack pace, and Capello’s decision to replace King with Jamie Carragher was also an odd one. The Liverpool centre back has had a disappointing season and his obvious lack of pace was exposed several times by Jozy Altidore. Carragher’s admission that he let Altidore go for fear of picking up a second yellow card within twenty minutes of being on the pitch speaks volumes about the risks England run with a Terry-Carragher partnership. Carragher is being put in front of the press today, suggesting Capello intends to play him against Algeria on Friday. That should be enough to secure a win against a side who did little of note against Slovenia, but the notion of those two trying to contain David Villa and Fernando Torres is the stuff of nightmares.
James Milner was another odd inclusion: like King his form cannot be disputed, but he missed several training sessions last week with a virus and was clearly off the pace, late in the tackle on numerous occasions, booked for persistent fouling in the first 25 minutes. Capello’s reaction, removing Milner for Shaun Wright Phillips after half an hour, was the right one but two substitutions had to be made before the start of the second half, and both could have been avoided had Capello got the team right first time.
Capello can be excused to a point as Gareth Barry’s injury forced a substantial deviation from England’s best eleven. The side has only looked well balanced when it has the Manchester City midfielder at its core. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard did well enough at the centre of midfield but everyone knows it is not a solution that gets the best out of either player.
Barry should be available for Algeria and Capello must acknowledge that Emile Heskey is not required in a game which is likely to be won by playing through England’s opponents, not over them. The Italian should name a side with as much flair as possible – perhaps playing Gerrard behind Rooney to allow them to renew a partnership which paid dividends, albeit with Gerrard playing from the left, during qualifying. While Shaun Wright Phillips was a sensible choice to replace Milner to deal with USA’s pace down the England left, he was typically wasteful in attack and Algeria may represent a perfect opportunity for Joe Cole. Currently without a club after being released by Chelsea, Cole has more reason to impress than most and rarely disappoints in an England shirt.
Capello must realise that his early promises now appear somewhat hollow. While a 1-1 draw with the group’s next strongest team is no disaster, the England coach needs to go back to his own basics if his side are to replicate those excellent displays during qualifying.