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Fabio Capello’s First Squad

Posted on 31 January 2008 by JamesHamilton

When Sven Goran Ericksson put out his first squad back in 2001, it sprang surprises, not least for Charlton’s Chris Powell. Powell was an effective left-back for England until Ashley Cole was ready (at the time, he was another surprise – too young, too inexperienced, it was thought by many). There are none in Capello’s first essay, just confirmation of dolour for Beckham and Robinson.

Beckham’s the victim of the US football season being out of sync with our own. Robinson, on the other hand, may be watching his entire career unravel. There have been comments made this year by former England keepers about the attitude of the new generation to training, learning and development – not complimentary ones, and although these comments haven’t been levelled at Robinson personally, nevertheless they give plenty of food for thought.

Robert Green can clearly forget all about England now, failing the absolute demise of every other English keeper. His omission, Beckham’s and Robinson’s aside, is Capello’s main departure from the Ericksson template. Otherwise, it’s clear that Capello’s brief time in England has led him to agree with the Swede: there really is only this core group of players who are up to international level, plus twenty or so hangers-on to this tasting menu of a squad.

Likewise Jermaine Defoe. It’s temperament with him – he combines his individual standoffishness with a reluctance to work on his game, with the result that his runs and positioning are no better now than they were when he was a teenage prodigy at West Ham.

I’m not surprised by Curtis Davies’s inclusion. His famous “pub footballer” interview, combined with some good recent performances, mark him out as someone with the right attitude to go with his talent. If he keeps this up, a long international career could await him. And, given the sheer number of Aston Villa selections, perhaps domestic trophies to boot. Martin O’Neill is building quietly, but it’s bearing fruit.

And it’s good to have Capello mention Walcott, Hart, Wheater and Lennon by name. Walcott and Lennon are on the verge of becoming for real what they have promised to be since 2006 – truly exciting, exceptional players, but both need a bit of luck at the moment. The boost of being singled out for mention will help them. Wheater surely won’t be out of the full squad for long, and there are rumoured to be others to follow from the excellent Middlesbrough youth set-up.

I saw Hart play against Sheffield United, and, comic disaster with balloons aside, he looks like a proper keeper. There’s a presence about him that wasn’t so evident with Robinson and Green. It’ll be interesting to see who of Kirkland, Carson and James get the nod against Switzerland.

Overall it’s a defensive squad, with more out-and-out defenders compared to midfielders than we saw under McClaren. Hargreaves or Barry will fight it out for the defensive midfield role, presumably behind Gerrard who looks as if he’ll pick up the armband in the absence of John Terry, unless Alex Ferguson’s proffering of Rio Ferdinand comes through.

There was talk of Michael Owen joining Beckham on the sidelines, but in the end, common sense won out. The doubts expressed about Owen mystify me: when he returned to the colours last year, it was to bring yet more goals. No other England forward does that so reliably.

It looks bad for Dean Ashton, though, who must – like Robert Green – be wondering what he has to do, what fates he has offended. But for injury, he’d have gone to the 2006 World Cup instead of either Walcott or Crouch. McClaren was on the verge of picking him, when injury came again. At one stage in 2005-6, he looked like a younger, more skilful version of Alan Shearer, an old style English centre forward but with subtlety.

Likewise Andy Johnson and Darren Bent. Neither has done anything since 2006 to contradict Ericksson’s judgement of them as, essentially, journeymen. Bent is injured at present, after having come so close to scoring against Croatia, but given what’s happened to Defoe, it will be interesting to see if he is picked when fit. England’s over for Johnson, the Kevin Phillips de nos jours.

Anyway, what do you think? Good squad, bad squad, meaningless? Who are the missing men? Do we learn anything significant about Capello’s ideas for England, or does that await the first of his actual elevens? Is Sol Campbell’s back injury the only reason for his absence, or is his England career over too?

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World Cup 2006: First Round Review

Posted on 25 June 2006 by JamesHamilton

A little late, perhaps, as I’ve already seen German gamesmanship sneak them past Sweden in their second-round tie, and I’ve already watched (yet another) epic Argentine victory, this time over an excellent Mexico. That match, at any rate, lived up to the extraordinary standards that the tournament’s set so far, and my worries that things would now settle down into a kind of football we’re all too accustomed to have been temporarily assuaged.

I no longer see England as potential winners of the tournament, but that’s not really their fault: they haven’t played badly. Indeed, finding out how they have played requires detective work: there have been no match reports in the press, and in their place we’ve been given a series of tired re-rehearsals of each writer’s individual gripes, whether those be over Beckham or over the Swedish coach or over the non-selection of any number of what you might consider worthies…

No, my doubts about England are less reasons than celebrations: for once, everyone has turned up at the World Cup. The last to check in were France. As I gloried in the M40 sunshine on Friday evening, over my blowtorching sunroof the radio gave me Henry and Viera, finally, being there; I’d almost given up. For the French, this is very much their last hurrah. Really, their matches should be senior tour exercises, full of the skills men still have in old age, careless, tension-free and with all that mugging to camera. You almost expect to see Jack Charlton there, feigning annoyance at yet another yellow card. And then you do… Yet, they are here, and not in the sense that the Rolling Stones are here, or the Eagles.. Most tournaments have perhaps two teams who show the kind of limitless, exultant promise that we’ve seen pouring off at least seven sides this time. England aren’t going to fail because they don’t produce what we expect of them – they’ll lose simply because everyone else is absolutely turning it on: we didn’t expect it, and it’s marvellous.

I’ve already said that my team of the first round was the Ivory Coast, and that remains the case, but Ghana have shown the same intent, the determination to be a proper team at a proper World Cup with proper ambition. There was a decision to be made by the subSaharan African sides – were they going to be the energetic, naive, skilful sides that cameo every four years, patronised by Pele and wearisome English commentators, or.. and they’ve taken the second option. And the psychological effect on the viewer – on this viewer – is considerable: if Togo, Ivory Coast, Ghana, contain more of these intelligent, committed people, if they have millions of the kind who have played with such pride and discipline in Germany, then – if it’s not too much of a change of subject – certain negative opinions about the future of their continent can be revised. I’ll say it again, it’s been a magnificent tournament.

The most interesting writing on the tournament hasn’t come from the press, but the Independent‘s having a good 2006. Isn’t that just extraordinary? The closest modern equivalent would be a discovery of cutting-edge investigative reporting in Weekly World News. Liberal intelligence survives in the Independent, in their own little Brigadoon in the back pages. I fear that mentioning it may cause it to blink out of existence and become as if it never were. The best football blogs haven’t been in the expected places, either; the first of my choices would recoil at the very idea of having provided excellent coverage, but that’s the beauty of it; the second has done his best work away from his normal base, but both are worth chasing up. Some existing football blogs have produced joint efforts – see what you think of this one.

But this is all very well: England are playing Ecuador this afternoon, and what of it? And it’s another rejigged side, and what of that? Well…. I’d rather it had been Germany: England don’t need yet another “relatively easy path” through a tournament, as the team responds best to the kind of stimulation famous opposition provides. But Ecuador are a better side than Germany, and their best players have had a week’s rest. England are up against a real challenge, and one camouflaged by an unfashionable flag and the inability of our slow, slow media to outrun the guinea pig stories. Erickson won’t be fooled: some of his players will be, and the commentators certainly will be.

The rejigged team is not a new formation – don’t believe the papers there: something very similar was used in the warm-ups immediately before the tournament. Without Owen, this is very much the side I’d play, but I’d wish to God I could pick Neville.

It’s going to be terribly hard to win today. It’s going to be terribly hard listening to England – listening to the English – undergoing the experience. Time for a stroll up Port Meadow, where there are no radios or televisions, and just enough riverside path and ruined Nunnery to last me the 140 minutes plus penalties.

If you want me, I’ll be in the Perch.

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World Cup 2006: The Press Have Got It Wrong

Posted on 31 May 2006 by JamesHamilton

Judging by some of the press reports – well summarised by Football365 as “Panic Mode” – on England’s 3-1 victory over Hungary last night, we can more or less forget about our winning in Germany this year. It’s for all the usual “reasons”, most of which I think are bunk:

  1. “Eriksson is an over-cautious manager who doesn’t bring the best out of the players at his disposal.” There’s a lot to say about this, but let’s just look at the cautious manager who is the first in living memory not to ignore our most skilful players because of their lack of work rate, who introduced Rooney at the age of 17 and brought in Ashley Cole after a mere handful of Premiership appearances. The same one who beat Argentina in a competitive World Cup Finals match with a team lacking Gary Neville, Steven Gerrard, any kind of proper left-sided player at all, plus injury-hobbled versions of Owen and Beckham.
  2. “Eriksson’s substitutions aren’t daring enough to win matches”. This makes the assumption that there are coaches out there who are doing exactly that on a regular basis. Apparently, Scolari did this against England and won the match – “boldly” substituting Figo because, “unlike Eriksson”, he “isn’t afraid of big-name players”. No, Scolari “won” the match with a deal of good fortune – namely, a good disallowed goal, the loss of Rooney, and penalties. Frankly, there’s only so much a coach can do with substitutions – he can’t guarantee that the player he sends on will do what he wants, he can’t account for what the other coach will do, and there are only so many replacements he can make. Shouting from the touchline is tricky, too, for all that our journos put such importance upon it. For one thing – you just can’t be heard above the crowd. Players who aren’t close to you have to take what you’re saying from other players – ever heard of Chinese Whispers? – and, of course, they have to understand you.
  3. “With only one more practice game before the World Cup, we’re still looking for answers”. Actually, most World Cup winners continue to do this long into the tournament itself. I’m going to devote the rest of this piece to some examples of what I mean:
  • Geoff Hurst made his debut for England in February 1966. He played in the Quarter Final against Argentina because of an injury to Jimmy Greaves. Hurst scored in that game, but it was goals from midfield in the next match against Portugal – a brace by Bobby Charlton – that got England to the Final.
  • Italy last won the World Cup in 1982, famously due to the goals of Paolo Rossi, who had been recalled to the team late in the day after two years out of football. Italy drew all three of their group matches, reaching the next round only on goal difference. Rossi didn’t score in any of those games.
  • Germany’s second World Cup win came when they last hosted the tournament in 1974. In their group matches, they were well beaten by East Germany, and struggled to beat both Australia and Chile. The German training camp, a virtual fortress owing to threats from terrorist groups, was riven by disputes over money and at one point the manager, Helmut Schon, threatened to send the entire squad home and play with a second string side.
  • Argentina – winners in 1986 – played only three teams of any quality to lift the trophy, and possessed only one world class player in Maradona. Against Italy in the group stages, they could only draw 1-1; against England, they failed to score until halfway through the second half and even then only through the most famous non-goal in the tournament’s history. Even in the Final itself, against Germany, they let go a 2-0 lead (and let’s hope this year’s Final is anywhere near as good as that one).
  • I don’t need to point this out, but Brazil in 2002 were poor, and were lucky to meet England’s string-and-sellotape side in the heat of the day. The other sides they met in that tournament included Turkey, twice (who were unlucky to lose, twice!) China, Costa Rica, and Belgium. Compare England’s fortune in facing Sweden, Nigeria, Argentina and, of course, Brazil. In terms of the quality of teams at that tournament, it’s arguable that without the match against England, Brazil would have had no proper test at all, and you might well regard that game as the tournament’s true Final.
  • France, in 1998, had a superb team, coming into its own, but a coach who the press didn’t trust with the job. And indeed, after cruising their group games (in spite of Zidane’s red card against Saudi Arabia) France squeezed through only on penalties against Italy, and came through – just! 2-1 against Croatia, not really having had the best of the game in any sense.
  • In 1994, the story is all about Italy, losers on penalties in the worst World Cup Final ever. In their group, they finished THIRD, having lost to the Republic of Ireland and only drawn against Mexico. Only a late Baggio goal got them past Spain; in the semi-final, they might have been pleased to meet Stoichov’s Bulgaria, but after running up an early lead (shades of England-Portugal in Euro 2000) spent most of the game under siege.

The point I’m making here is that teams never cruise World Cups – and the winners never go into them with everything neatly planned out. The tournament is always a chapter of accidents, and the new, longer-format tournaments even more so.

I can see no teams who are coming into these Finals in better shape, or with things more settled. Even Brazil. Their astonishing forward line is there right enough, but once you get past them, the remaining five outfield players are deeply inferior to their English counterparts.

The press have it wrong. We won last night, with ease, and Crouch scored a first-class goal to go with that other first-out-of-the-balloon candidate, Beckham, who was fantastic. This might still be our year.

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