England’s World Cup Chances: 23 into 11 Doesn’t Go

For the mathematicians out there you’ll instantly recognise the numbers 11 and 23 as ‘prime numbers’, meaning of course that they are only divisible by themselves and 1.

For the football fans out there you will recognise 11 as the number of players you can have on the pitch at any one time and 23 as the number of players included in a World Cup squad.

So what?…. I hear you ask. Isn’t it about time Condell got back to work and left the Christmas spirit alone? Absolutely right of course, but bear with me and I’ll attempt to make some sense of that introduction.

Let us start with the England WC squad of 2002. These are the statistics for player appearances and starts.

No. Player App Starts
1 Seaman 5 5
2 Mills 5 5
3 Cole 5 5
4 Sinclair 4 3
5 Ferdinand 5 5
6 Campbell 5 5
7 Beckham 5 5
8 Scholes 5 5
9 Fowler. 1 0
10 Owen 5 5
11 Heskey 5 5
12 Brown 0 0
13 Martyn 0 0
14 Bridge 2 0
15 Keown 0 0
16 Southgate 0 0
17 Sheringham 4 0
18 Hargreaves 2 2
19 Cole. 1 0
20 Vassell 3 1
21 Butt 4 4
22 James 0 0
23 Dyer 3 0

The first thing of note here is that 9 players started every one of England’s 5 games in the tournament. 5 players saw no action whatsoever. Butt started 4, Sinclair 3 and Hargreaves 2. The rest fed off the scraps of a few limited substitute appearances.

On to 2006 and this was the picture:

No. Player App Starts
1 Robinson 5 5
2 Neville 2 2
3 Cole 5 5
4 Gerrard 5 4
5 Ferdinand 5 5
6 Terry 5 5
7 Beckham 5 5
8 Lampard 5 5
9 Rooney 4 3
10 Owen 3 3
11 Cole 5 5
12 Campbell 1 0
13 James 0 0
14 Bridge 0 0
15 Carragher 3 2
16 Hargreaves 4 3
17 Jenas 0 0
18 Carrick 1 1
19 Lennon 2 0
20 Downing 3 0
21 Crouch 3 2
22 Carson 0 0
23 Walcott 0 0
  • 7 players started every game. If Rooney, Owen, Gerrard and Neville had been fit throughout the tournament that would probably have been 11.
  • 5 players saw no action at all and, again, others fed off the scraps of a few substitute appearances while the lucky ones got a couple of run-outs to cover for injuries.

Put another way, in 5 games or 55 starting opportunities, England’s 1st eleven filled 47 of those slots while the remaining 12 players in the squad amassed just 8 starts between them, covering for injuries.

The point is this. No manager worth his salt rolls-up to a World Cup without being absolutely clear in his mind as to what his best team is, what his preferred formation is, and what his tactics will be.

And make no mistake, no country ever wins the World Cup using a ‘squad’ system. It’s all about having a quality 11 and playing your best team every game. To win the WC you have to play 7 games in 4 weeks. Half the teams in the competition will only play 3 games, some 4, some 5 etc……so it’s no place for fannying around with tactics and formations and he who does is dead.

Hence my bemusement at the endless ongoing debates amongst England fans ever since they qualified! Fair enough, the goalkeeper position is up for grabs but Capello will make his choice in the coming months and stick with it through the tournament. Johnson, if fit, will be RB….because right now there’s no competition. But it’s the endless debates about wide players, back-up centre- backs and 2nd strikers that are so superfluous!

If England were to reach the Holy Grail in SA 2010 it will be Ferdinand, Terry, A.Cole, Gerrard, Lampard and Rooney who take them there. If fit and on form I would add J.Cole and Hargreaves to that list. The rest will make-up the numbers.

England need Ferdinand and Terry at their best. Lescott, Brown, Upson, Woodgate, King, Cahill etc etc? Yes, 2 or 3 of those names will travel but Capello will hope not to need any of them….and if he does then England’s chances will diminish.

Beckham, Lennon, Walcott, Milner, Wright-Phillips, Young, Downing? If someone was actually good enough….demanding the shirt as it were, would we have all this speculation? Again 3 or 4 of those names will be on the plane. Lennon or even Beckham, if he has an outstanding time at Milan in the coming months, will get the nod. The others are irrelevant, and even if they travel will see no major action at the finals.

Rooney is England’s one world class striker. Capello must light a candle every night before he goes to bed imploring the powers that be to keep him fit! Heskey, Defoe, Crouch, Bent, Cole, Agbonlahor….Owen even!? Personally I’d dispense with the need for a 2nd striker by doing what Benitez does at Liverpool…..more of that in a later article, but Capello won’t so he’ll make his choice and stick with it. The rest, whether on the plane or not will have little or no influence.

It’s all about the best 11 in a World Cup, so stop all the hand wringing and biased touting of your preferred club’s ‘possibles’ and concentrate on just that!

But determining England’s best 11 and formation, and comparing the 2010 squad with the ‘golden generation’ of 2006 are interesting exercises, not to mention having a look at the quality of the opposition versus 4 years ago.

In the coming weeks I’ll be discussing all of the above but…… in the meantime……… just remember that 23 into 11 doesn’t go!

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