Becks, Rooney and Owen: A Bridge Too Far?
Yes, of course the loss of Wayne Rooney is devastating to England’s imagined World Cup prospects, but to be frank, those prospects were hopelessly over-imagined by the English media. Rooney’s injury, and doubts over whether Michael Owen will regain his fitness in time for the tournament, simply highlights the lack of depth in the England squad. Take out Rooney and Owen, and you’re going to start with Crouch and Defoe.
But that’s conventional wisdom in the post-Rooney metatarsal hand-wringing — even Stevie Gerrard now says it’s impossible to win the World Cup without Shrek. But I’ve maintained all along that England were not going to win the World Cup simply because they lack the balance in their first-choice starting lineup to be world-beaters, even with a fully fit Rooney and Owen (both of whom are doubts, now). Rooney and Owen are deadly forwards, to be sure, but against a team with quick central defenders and a classy midfield wrecker of the Makelele variety, they can be contained. And talking of classy midfield wreckers, that, of course, is England’s major problem: They don’t have a holding midfielder.
Eriksson would presumably start Beckham out on the right and — lacking a natural player in that position — Joe Cole wide on the left. That leaves the two central midfield berths for whom the crowd favorites would obviously be Frank Lampard and our very own Steven Gerrard. Problem is that Lampard and Gerrard play exactly the same game rampaging in support of the strikers, and neither is a natural holding player. Stevie has played wide on the right for Liverpool to great effect in the second half of the season, but that wouldn’t really solve anything because Becks isn’t going to be a holding player either. (And the natural deputy for Becks in that role would be Sean Wright-Phillips, but because the fool went to Chelsea where he has spent the season warming the bench, it’s hard to know the state of his form.) Sven has been so desperate that he’s even tried Ledley King in that role, but he looked out of his depth against serious opposition — and Manchester United’s disasters with using Alan Smith to fill Roy Keane’s boots should serve as a warning against playing non-specialists in that position. My own pick for that position would be Spurs’ Michael Carrick, whose far and away the best English defensive midfielder in the premiership (although that isn’t necessarily saying much). But that creates a Lamps/Gerrard selection dilemma.
In the center of defense, John Terry is a marvel, and I suspect he’ll be partnered by Rio Ferdinand even though the latter has looked a little ponderous at times this season. If Ledley King recovers from injury, he’s a good alternate, and there’s always our very own Carra. Fullbacks are a problem, though: Ashley Cole is a world-class player on the left, but his fitness remains in doubt. Wayne Bridge makes a half-decent replacement on the left, more suspect defensively but good going forward. And the fact that Gary Neville remains the prime contender for the right back berth tells its own story.
I’d say that even with a fully fit Wayne Rooney, that team was going to struggle once in the group phase: If it finishes second in the group to Sweden (quite conceivable) its first group game would be Germany — a tough game, although Germany are a lot weaker than they have been in my lifetime. If that is the case, and they win, they’d face (by my reckoning) Holland. And it ends there (with or without Wayne). If they win their group, it’s Poland, and then Portugal. There again, I think it ends. (If they did manage to prevail over Scolari’s team, they’d face a semifinal showdown with — and another master class from — Brazil.)
Sorry, lads, ’66 was a long time ago. And yes, the English Premiership may be arguably Europe’s strongest domestic leagues, but there are only about 17 Englishmen among the 55 players that would make up the first-choice starting lineups of its top five clubs.