It’s time to ask what we ought to want from this game.
I want England to do well. But I want them to do well in a way that shows that we know what we are doing and that we know where we are going. At the moment, I don’t think we do and I don’t think we know.
England had two problems at the World Cup: central midfield, and scoring goals. At least we knew why we weren’t scoring goals. Since Michael Owen’s first serious injury early in 2006, England had not had access to anything like the first choice forward line – that Owen-Rooney partnership that had so much potential in it, with the initially surprisingly-successful Owen-Crouch partnership as backup.
Beyond those three players, the talent gap yawned. Heskey was gone, taken by a combination of his misuse by club managers and his own failure to assert his own self-interest sufficiently. Andrew Johnson had been sucked into the Championship by Crystal Palace, and, for all that his debut was reduced unfairly to farce, was never seen as a real solution. Jermaine Defoe’s positional play was lacking, and his attitude unsuited for the needs of a long campaign.
The plan had always been to bring Dean Ashton, a player of genuine England class, into the squad after the World Cup. That has been scuppered by his long-term injuries, injuries that have ruined more than just England’s plans.
Against Spain, there’s still no Owen and Ashton, and Rooney is doubtful. Every player whom Crouch is able to facilitate is missing. Once again, then, he’ll be misused, confronted with lunkhead high balls. He might be tall, but his strengths, which are real, rest in his feet. They’ll ask him to hold the ball up. For whom? For what? And it won’t work properly, and his credentials will be questioned.
As for midfield, the mystery is, if anything, even deeper now than it was before the World Cup. I would have thought that Owen Hargreaves’ performance against Portugal, in which he managed to be both holding and attacking midfielder in the moral and psychological absences of Lampard and Gerrard, would have put paid to the suggestion that the problem those two had was that they couldn’t play together. It might have been tiredness. Both had already played gigantic seasons. It might have been discomfort being away from the safe cocoons and meaningful context of their clubs. Easier to blame the manager. But the next manager hasn’t done any better.
At first, the thing was to move Gerrard out onto the right. Everyone agreed that this was the right idea – after all, it was where he played for Liverpool. Do you remember that? It was only last summer. What you won’t remember is that the move completely undermined the anti-Beckham argument, which was that the right midfield spot should go to a nippy young winger who could get behind the defence. Anyway, that idea’s gone into the memory hole, along with that other anti-Sven stroke of genius, the Rooney-Crouch partnership. Do you remember reading that if Sven had only gone for that against (name of opponent) all would be well? It didn’t work for McClaren, did it – and it’s obvious why: both men play in the same position.
We can write down suggestions for midfield all day long. It makes no difference. The problem is exactly where it was a year ago. The Beckham thing is no more than a smokescreen, a piece of meat thrown to the sharks, an empty gesture supposedly showing that McClaren is his own man. My own frustration is different. Why couldn’t the injuries pre-World Cup have gone to Defoe and Lampard instead of Owen and Rooney? And the big post-World Cup ones to Wayne Bridge and Andy Johnson instead of Hargreaves and Ashton?
As for Joey Barton… I suppose the press will comment that he brings some commitment and passion to the squad. All I’d say to that is there’s a difference between “character” and “personality” when it comes to these things. We’re going through a “personality” phase, preferring someone who will play badly but show – ever so much! that they care about England, letting their veins show on their necks in the way people think Stuart Pearce used to (he did it once – after the penalty he scored in 1996 – and was otherwise an excellent example of calm and concentration and real determination, not the feigned or showy kind that’s in demand now.)
Barton’s selection fulfils no tactical purpose whatsoever. His opta stats are inferior to Steven Gerrard’s, and grossly inferior to Frank Lampard’s, and his disciplinary record off the scale beside theirs. He’s there in part as injury cover, but mostly as one more sop to the red tops.
Barry, on the other hand, probably deserves his chance. He’ll never push out Ashley Cole as first choice – for all Cole’s unpopularity with the fans, he is probably the best player in his position in the world at the moment. But I wouldn’t regard it as unlikely to regard Barry as second string in front of Wayne Bridge.
Anyway, what do we want out of this game? A victory, that will serve to perpetuate the fantasy for another couple of months? A crashing defeat, that will expose everything for a few hours until the press cover it up again? A bore draw (the most likely result)?
The patriot in me wants things to go well for England despite my sense that there’s no hand at the rudder but Max Clifford’s. The part of me that wants England to do well long-term wants a defeat – but that part of me has to acknowledge that in reality, there’s never a “long-term” in English football, that it’s been crisis management since the 1929 defeat at the hands of.. Spain, and always will be. France made it to a World Cup final under a man who admitted to the use of astrology in picking the team. May we be so lucky.