Perhaps the most shocking element of the fallout from England’s meek performances at the World Cup is not that striker Wayne Rooney has borne the brunt of criticism but that so few others have been singled out, let alone stepped forward to shoulder any responsibility for failure. Rooney alone is now the media’s principal target.
Fabio Capello’s decision to drop goalkeeper Rob Green for England’s match against Algeria Friday night has ended that debate and in turn increased the pressure on Rooney.
Indeed, Rooney’s performances in South Africa have been quiet in the face of minimal support from midfield or the English flanks. Dropping ever deeper against Algeria, Rooney reverted to the striker of years past in a desperate attempt to bring himself into the game when others could not.
But while the media – and especially England fans – have largely heaped the pressure on Manchester United’s 34-goal striker, England’s troubles lie elsewhere in the mediocrity of a poor quality team and manager resistant to change.
In the match against Algeria, as the with England’s draw with the USA, Capello’s side failed to retain possession of the ball; the English disease. While former Germany great Franz Beckenbauer exaggerated the depths of England’s travails – calling Cappello’s tactics “kick and rush” – the side’s age-old inability to retain the ball while maneuvering opponents out of position again came to the fore.
Defensively more secure against the North Africans than in England’s previous World Cup match, Capello’s team was still unable to assert any significant assault on the Algerian net. Resorting first to hitting hapless forward Emile Heskey from back-to-front, the English then worked the channels to no great effect, eschewing any attempt to play through midfield.
While Capello made the sensible decision to break up the ego-laden partnership of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard for Friday’s draw, neither that celebrated pair nor the returning Gareth Barry offered any creativity from midfield, let alone a decent pass to a team-mate.
Meanwhile Tottenham Hotspur’s normally dangerous Aaron Lennon was reduced to cutting inside and playing a square ball rather than taking on his opponent.
Unsurprisingly Capello has retained both the formation and personnel that qualified for the World Cup so impressively. The Italian’s record of domestic success and apparent ability to turn around England’s fortunes following Steve McClaren’s shambolic reign earned the 64-year-old the right to stick firmly to plan A.
But it’s a system that uses few of England’s better players in their club positions. Rooney, now the lone forward at Old Trafford, is asked to drop a little deeper with England. Gerrard, frequently used just behind the road-running Fernando Torres at Anfield, is now consigned to the left-wing. Even Frank Lampard normally operates from the security of a three-man Chelsea midfield.
Little wonder then that Rooney has been presented with so few half chances in two matches to date, let alone a genuine opportunity to release the pressure.
Why then such heavy criticism laid at the Scouser’s door when neither Gerrard nor Lampard have shone to date? After all should Capello, as some English media and supporters are now clamoring for, drop the United striker it is hardly going to help the team retain the ball.
There is of course far greater focus on what Cristiano Ronaldo yesterday called “the big players” – he should know having failed to score for Portugal during open play for nearly two years. On the team’s best player lies the burden of responsibility.
There is also a strong element within the English supporter base that has no love for United’s representatives within the squad – even Rooney.
The sensible – perhaps even safe – option for Capello in England’s final group game against Slovenia on Wednesday afternoon is to go with plan B, and restore the player’s preferred 4-3-3 formation against the Eastern Europeans.
John Terry’s rapidly aborted attempt at a players’ coup yesterday not only revealed the Chelsea-player’s Sir Colin Campbell-esque denial that he is no longer captain but also a widespread belief that restoring the majority of England’s best players to their club positions is the route to success.
After all, using Rooney as England’s principal forward cannot yield fewer results than Heskey has to date no matter how far the United man has under-performed. Nor can pushing Gerrard into ‘the hole’ behind United’s striker isolate the Liverpool-captain any further. Bringing Joe Cole into the left-side of a three man attack will also add much needed variety to England’s play.
Perhaps most importantly the switch will surely liberate Rooney to perform as he has for United all season.
The alternative – the media’s option – is to drop England’s best player, in one fell swoop securing his status as preferred scapegoat while ensuring the English return home even earlier than many expected.