It’s amazing that some English journalists don’t sustain whiplash from their knee-jerk reactions after each England game. England can definitely play 4-4-2 successfully. The Defoe-Rooney partnership does work. Joe Hart is the answer. As a nation England could do with the collective equivalent of counting to ten before judging any performance.
The conclusions that can actually be drawn from the Bulgaria game are tenuous at best. Rooney and Defoe did link up well, partly due to the more withdrawn role that Capello asked Rooney to play but the Bulgarian defence was poor and unable to deal with Rooney’s movement or Defoe’s pace. Having previously failed, the partnership needs a sterner test than accommodating opposition on home soil. Similarly Joe Hart does look like he is turning into a very solid ‘keeper but the biggest threat to his goal was Glen Johnson. It is far too soon for the Setanta commentator to be talking about him earning more caps than Shilton.
The formation issue is more complex. The vogue which is sweeping football fans everywhere is 4-2-3-1, particularly with two featuring a double pivot of the tough tackler and the deep-lying playmaker a la Gattuso and Pirlo for AC Milan in the mid 00’s or the Liverpool version of Mascherano and Alonso. This pivot a) forms a box with the centre-backs which congests the danger zone that the opposition is attempting to occupy and b) creates a triangle with the driving presence of a dominant trequartista or number 10 such as Kaka or Gerrard.
The problem facing England is whether the necessary personnel exist which enable this system. Gerrard has proved at Liverpool that he is capable of playing this role behind Torres, while Rooney was effectively dropping off against Bulgaria and finding space to dictate play. The double pivot presents a bigger challenge. Under Capello the deep-lying playmaker role has been filled by Barry whenever he has been available. Other options include Michael Carrick who is suffering a serious loss of form for both club and country, Huddlestone or Jack Wilshire. Neither Barry nor Carrick are good enough at the crunch requiring time and space on the ball in order to dictate games which is denied at the top level. Huddlestone and Wilshire both lack the necessary experience. Wilshire in particular looks a very good prospect but both are highly unlikely to be ready by 2012.
Finally there is the destroyer role. In all honesty, not one England player could compete with Gattuso, Mascherano or even Sergio Busquets. The positional discipline and ability to read the game that all of the above have in spades is not present in any current or prospective player for England. This role is the nub of the problem with England adopting the 4-2-3-1 role. Against Germany we saw how easily the midfield was bypassed on the counter-attack. In short, come back Owen Hargreaves, your country needs you.
A decent performance against a poor Bulgarian outfit has been subjected to a level of (inept) analysis that it doesn’t really merit. Rooney is regaining fitness, Defore and Walcott are both really quick and Hart is a confident and competent goalkeeper. Wonderful. Until we bring in two decent deep-lying midfielders, we will continue without silverware.