England Verdict – Time To Play Like Champions

For the last four days England have had the media on their back – everyone and their mother has talked about Eriksson’s squad selection, his tactics and his substitutions has being the main reasons for England not playing to their potential against Paraguay. The media has made fun of England’s problems with the heat, as if England had not known earlier about their first game being played at 2 pm.

In short, the hacks jumped at the chance to bring down a team they had themselves built up heavily in the leadup and are now sharpening their knives in expectation of England failing to perform up to their potential this time around.

Being an England fan and also someone who said that England can win the World Cup if they play well, I think it’s time to set a couple of things straight.

Eriksson On Trial

Eriksson is on a media trial for his squad selection (namely, leaving out Jermaine Defoe), for his substitutions (not replacing Owen with Walcott), about not solving the midfield quandry between Lampard and Gerrard who did not know when to defend and when to attack (Ferdinand was quoted saying that the back four did not have any cover in front of them) and most of all, for relying way too much on Wayne Rooney to rescue England.

Let’s look at the squad again. We have Gerrard, Lampard, Beckham, Cole, Carrick, Lennon, Jenas, Hargreaves and Downing in there. 9 midfielders with different roles – Downing and Lennon as cover for the flanks and Carrick, Jenas and Hargreaves for the center two. A lot of people have criticised Eriksson for bringing Hargreaves but as I said earlier, Hargreaves is a defensive midfielder with an excellent record and his place in the squad is justified.

However, Jenas is not the best choice here. I understand that Eriksson would want offensive cover, but considering that Crouch, Rooney, Cole, Gerrard and Lampard can all play in the advanced midfielder’s role (not to mention Lennon and Walcott), Jenas is one attacker too many. England would have been better served with bringing someone who was more in form and could play defensive if needed. Kevin Nolan fits that role perfectly. Barring that, Eriksson could have also brought 5 strikers, just to be safe. It was a tactical choice and based on the belief that Rooney would be fit after the group stages.

The problem is, of course, of Walcott. As far as the strikers are concerned, I think there is one simple reason Eriksson brought him – for surprise. Why Eriksson has hid Walcott for so long I don’t understand, but this again is a tactical decision – he could want Walcott to be purely a last-ditch option or as part of a very attacking formation when England need to go all-out. Either way, not giving Walcott a full game against Jamaica / Hungary was a big mistake. Crouch could have been rested, as he was already a certainty for starting the group matches.

For defenders, I still cannot understand why Campbell is there – his experience apart Campbell will be a liability in the latter stages of the tournament. A player on form like Wes Brown would have been a much better choice and he could have provided cover on the right for Neville as well if necessary.

So much for the squad. Not much to talk about, really – Hargreaves is a fair pick, and Defoe is very, very unlucky to miss out (I would have taken him instead of Walcott, but what’s done is done).

Questionable Tactics

More pertinent criticism comes on Eriksson’s tactics against Paraguay. Whether playing long-ball for 80 minutes was a pre-determined strategy or England falling into bad habits, I don’t really know. Still, without using Beckham and Cole effectively on the flanks, and without having any sort of coordination between Gerrard and Lampard, the only thing left for Neville and co to do was to thump the ball up to Crouch. England must find a way to fix their midfield and play possession football like Brazil, Italy and Argentina – otherwise they will lose.

Taking off Owen was actually a smart choice – he was tired, and not playing too well. Downing looking to be there just to encourage England to play on the flanks more, but Gerrard and Lampard again failed to link up and Eriksson then had to bring on Hargreaves to shore up the midfield. Why Eriksson is not playing Carrick may be baffling to some but if you consider that Hargreaves is a central part of Bayern Munich’s midfield, you’ll realise that you have a very highly rated player beating a young talent from the 5th placed team in England. Not much of a contest, really.

The two things lacking from England’s play were possession and attacking flair. We’ll need both to win the World Cup, and as Cole and Beckham have been saying, they will hopefully get both back for the match against Trinidad and Tobago tomorrow.

Time To Play Like Champions

Relying on your best striker to be fit for the second round is not a gamble, it’s good sense. Still, England are worryingly stale without Rooney and need to turn it up a notch before Rooney arrives. A lot of the blame is being placed on Eriksson, but the two players in the centre (Gerrard and Lampard) are more responsible than anyone else.

By playing Gerrard a bit deeper and allowing Lampard to do all the attacking England can solve a lot of their problems. Similarly, having Lampard and Gerrard rotate their defensive duties is also an option. If worse comes to worse, England could even play 3-1-4-2, with Ferdinand pushing up and anchoring the midfield.

Lampard, despite his stellar performances with Chelsea, is not as good as Gerrard and if his place in the starting 11 is costing England, he must either change his game or sit on the bench. Having Carrick or Hargreaves play alongside Gerrard might be unthinkable for England fans (and especially the media) but it would solve a lot of problems for England in an instant.

Like Beckham said, it’s time to play like champions.

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