(Ed Note: My coverage of Team USA has been pretty exhaustive to this point, so let’s spread the wealth, shall we? Come back tomorrow for an analysis of the USA’s friendly with Australia…)
England may have invented the game football (just ask any Englishman), but the role of the founders in the narrative of the World Cup has been one of bombast, blood, and, of course penalty kicks. Of all of the teams considered among the greats in the world, England has been one of the most consistent under-performers in the history of the tournament (The winner is Spain, but more on them later). The epicenter of English heartbreak? A little white circle located located 12 yards from the mouth of the goal, a distance that should provide a massive advantage to the kick taker, but has provided a path to woe for English teams. Let’s take a walk down memory lane, shall we? For the sake of English sanity, I’ll leave the European Championships out of it…
1990: Chris Waddle
1998: David Batty
2006: Ummm… Everyone?
Needless to say, I have nothing but admiration for the optimism and confidence of English supporters as they enter the 2010 World Cup under the guidance of Fabio Capello; I don’t know how they keep their chins up. Perhaps it is because they have the greatest and most entertaining domestic professional league in the world, the English Premiership, which provides the rhythm of days around homes, pubs and football grounds around the world; I myself am a massive fan of an English club (Liverpool). But you can’t help but look at England’s national team and wonder why they aren’t one of the most dominant sides in the world.
The answer lies, I think, in the positional problems at the center of midfield; Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard are the heart of this team, two players who, essentially, play the exact same position. While Gerrard thrives by having the freedom to roam all over the pitch, box to box, Lampard is a long range bomber who never saw a ball he didn’t want to put in the fifth row behind the goal. As the two of them control possession in the midfield, England provide no safety net since, with the injury of Owen Hargreaves, they do not have a Defensive Midfielder to sit in front of the back four and mop things up, break up counter attacks, and boss the midfield and maintain possession. Perhaps Gareth Barry will fill in, but he is coming off of a serious injury and may not be ready in time. In his absence, England play the ball wide, with James Miller on the left and Aaron Lennon/ Shawn-Wright Phillips on the right, and fly up the wings to deliver the ball into the box. Behind them? A Right Back (Glenn Johnson) and a Left Back (Ashely Cole) who like to fly up the wings and deliver the ball into the box. Up top? Wayne Rooney, one of the best strikers in the world, a
completely undisciplined horrible stain of a man formidable presence who is coming off the season of his life, and Peter Crouch or Jermain Defoe, an unbelievable tall and skinny athlete and an incredibly short and fast athlete, both of whom had a great year.
And yet, watching England, with all of this talent on the pitch, you can’t help but think of the technical limitations of English football, which was the whole reason Fabio Capello was brought in as manager; None of these players are “technical” (you don’t see a lot of short possession passing or tight control of the ball on the run), instead, they rely on tough tackling, powerful runs, dangerous crosses and the pace of play. But this style of play has deep limitations at the international level, and while the hiring of Capello promised a more technical England, the team haven’t changed much at all, playing hours and hours of muddy and disconnected football where no one player drives the team forward or seems empowered to take England by the scruff of the neck or, using individual brilliance and taking advantage of the overwhelming amount of talent in attack, appear able to carry the nation to glory.
In the run up to the 2010 World Cup, it seemed likely that Wayne Rooney would be that player; he carried his club team on his back all year long and this was to be his time to shine. But in the run up to the tournament, Wayne Rooney has been almost invisible and the midfield, without a player to link between the back and the forwards, has done little to inspire confidence (hell, Frank Lampard even missed a penalty kick against Japan in a pre-tournament friendly, just to keep everyone’s expectations realistic). You look at the names on the team sheet and your eyes get wide and you say “wow!” and then you watch them play and say “really?”
Frank Lampard Misses Against Japan
While England should dominate Group C with 9 points (and I certainly expect them to qualify from this group), I have no idea what will happen to them outside the comforts of a rather easy Group C. Add to that today’s news that England Captain and starting Center back Rio Ferdinand has been ruled out of the tournament with a knee injury (I assume Ledley King replaces him), and England seem to have far too many questions that need answers too quickly; this team needs a pulse, a heartbeat, a leader. Without inspiration and purpose, this is a team of eleven great players without an identity. Can Fabio Capello inspire this team in the dying hours and bring England its first World Cup title since 1966 or will England score early, lose the lead late, and crash out again on penalties? Why is this nation seemingly always struggling to bring the best from its world-class roster?
Who To Watch
For England, it has to be Wayne Rooney. He leads the attack and has been virtually unstoppable this year at the club level. If he can translate his passion and power into an inspiration for England, the team should cruise into the Round of 16; if not, there is plenty of quality to compensate, but will they? The opposition is decent; The USA’s Landon Donovan is making it his personal mission to redeem himself in this World Cup and if he is at the top of his game and brimming with confidence, his pace and leadership can inspire the USA to a strong second place finish. Slovenian veteran Robert Koren will have something to say about that, as Slovenia are a dangerous and disciplined team who could easily end up scoring a few upsets in the Group as they did against mighty Russia, wining 1-0 on a Zlatko Dedic strike in Maribor to qualify for the World Cup. Slovenia is a nation of 2.1 million people, which makes it just a little bit smaller than Houston, TX in terms of population, making it one of the smallest nations in the World Cup.
Algeria, on the other hand, came off of its own qualifying miracle, beating Egypt 1-0 in a one game play-off on a neutral field in one of the most heated matches in recent history, a result that lead to riots in Cairo:
How’s Your German?: Antar Yahida Wins Qualifies Alkgeria
Yazid Mansouri is a veteran Defensive Midfielder, a hard tackler who can win balls anywhere in the midfield and spring the Algerian attack. Look for the Algerian Captain to make his mark and win a ton of balls if Algeria are to find a way out of the Group stages.
The Ball Is Mine: Algeria’s Yazid Mansouri
Must See Match
I think it goes without saying that, for me, the match of Group is the first one played when England meets the USA on June 12. I have written at length about both teams now, but I truly believe the USA has a chance; if The USA can secure a draw against England, the Group sets up nicely for both nations, especially if Algeria and Slovenia draw. Realistically? I think England wins this match walking away as there are too many match up problems all over the pitch (English wingers vs USA Defensive Backs, Lampard/ Gerrard should dominate Bradley/Torres, Onyewu/ DeMerit vs Wayne Rooney). The USA’s two big advantages will come with the pace of Landon Donovan and the creativity of Clint Dempsey, which could cause headaches for John Terry and Ledley King, and in goal, where Tim Howard has spent the few years of his life stopping shots from everyone on the English team; if Howard plays out of his head and Donovan/Dempsey can get the ball in dan gerous areas, we’ll have a reasonable match. Otherwise? England seems a likely winner as they outclass the US all over the pitch… still, the ghost of World Cup 1950, a 1-0 win for the USA vs England in their only previous World Cup meeting, could provide the inspiration for a special match.
Can Donovan Be The Difference?
Who Moves On
I can’t imagine England not winning the Group, and I think the USA has enough pace and talent to win against Slovenia and Algeria to get them out of the Group stage. That said, the USA has a history of brutal matches in their final Group stage match-ups; losses to Austria in 1990, Romania in 1994, Yugoslavia in 1998, Poland in 2002 and Ghana in 2006 have done little to help the USA in qualifying for the Round of 16. A loss to England and the USA has no room for error in the rest of the Group, which means that if either Slovenia or Algeria can nick a result off of the USA, we’re in big trouble. I think the USA can do it, but it will not be an easy task. Look for Slovenia to provide a real test on June 18.
Robert Koren Captains A Dangerous Slovenian Side
Up Next: Group D