England’s troubles

How can one put any faith in Fabio Capello and his team selections, so long as he goes on indulging David Beckham in this irrational and disastrous way, asks Brian Glanville.

Another 45 minutes in Amsterdam in a friendly against Holland for one paced, pedestrian, irrelevant David Beckham. Putting, if any, hinge brake on an England attack which came suddenly to life after the break when Fabio Capello (does Beckham know in the old adage where the body is buried?) at last took him off. 2-0 down at half-time, England, now with two wingers who could run and a lively substitute striker in Jermain Defoe, got back both goals; Defoe scoring the pair of them. Yet, how can one put any faith in Capello and his team selections, so long as he goes on indulging Beckham in this irrational and disastrous way? And just to put the tin lid on things, Beckham, a few days later, was sent off the field with a straight red card, after a gross challenge while playing for the Los Angeles Galaxy. Yet, Capello “warns” him that unless he can get in substantial European experience between now and the 2010 World Cup, with Milan seemingly deft enough to pick up his tab again, he won’t be chosen.

To be fair to Beckham, though it becomes increasingly difficult, just as it is to see sense in Capello — whose English after all this time seems to be deteriorating rather than improving — he was not the only culprit in England’s putrid first-half display. Both goals were ineptly given away with criminally careless back passes. The first by Rio Ferdinand, whose costly insouciance in the recent European Cup Final had given space and a headed goal to Barca’s Lionel Messi, the second by usually reliable Gareth Barry. At right-back, a careless defensive performance by Glen Johnson, so crazily over-priced at £17 million when he recently joined Liverpool from Portsmouth, wasn’t even redeemed by the overlapping in which he normally specialises. Whether acting under orders or not, both he and the left-back Ashley Cole, also well-known for his forays, was equally cautious. Why?

Not that it mattered much after half-time, that the wingers, Shaun Wright-Phillips on the right flank, James Milner, so belatedly winning his first cap, in grand style on the left, gave England new life and thrust. Emile Heskey, as striker-in-chief, praised in some quarters for his first-half contributions, not least for the shrewd flick which gave Wayne Rooney, England’s undoubted start turn, a goal, gave way to Defoe. Smaller, quicker and so much more of a goal-scorer than Heskey, as he twice, so briskly, demonstrated. The trouble with Heskey is that, despite his height, bulk and power, he so seldom does score. Though perhaps it would be harsh to judge him on his passive performance which I saw, three days later for Aston Villa, his new club, at home to an irresistible Wigan, at Villa Park, Milner apart, on the right-wing this time, and distinguished not only by an early shot which might have scored but with a save on his own goal-line, what Villa player emerged with any credit?

Holland are among the favourites for the ensuing World Cup, but they hardly looked a major force in that second-half in Amsterdam, despite the gift of those two goals. And it should be recalled that England were without Steven Gerrard, one of their pitifully few genuine stars, though when he returns, it presumably means that Capello will continue to dodge the need to sort out the eternal dualism with Frank Lampard. Stick Gerrard again on the left-flank and you would push Milner over to the right where, of course, he is perfectly adept at playing, but it means you’d now have one real winger rather than two. Gerrard is a right-footed, attacking, midfielder on the England left-flank, prone to wander into the middle and even to crack goals from there. Yet, moving inside, unless a colleague switches from the centre to fill the space, means that the way is potentially clear for overlaps by the opposing right-back.

The sad truth is that, Rooney apart, this is an England team without flair, without players, in the old Italian phrase, “capable of inventing the game.” That is to say, doing something unexpected and decisive. Theo Walcott wasn’t fit enough to play in Amsterdam but he is surely the chief candidate with his pace and skill for that outside-right position, while the splendidly confident and speedy Milner can stay left. So, again, why put Gerrard on the wing?

Then, of course, there is the exciting, emerging talent of Arsenal’s 17-year-old attacker, Jack Wilshere on whom Capello has already smiled. Though you do have to wonder, despite his splendid displays against Atletico Madrid and Rangers in the Emirates tournament, how often Arsenal will deploy him? Not least as in the opening Premier League game of the season, when the Gunners annihilated a demoralised Everton side 6-1 at Goodison Park, he did not get on the field. And Walcott, surely an automatic first choice, was absent, injured.

Wilshere has begun his first team career with Arsenal chiefly on the wings, but he showed in the pre-season tournament that he is perfectly happy to work in the middle. There, of course, we find Frank Lampard, highly competent, a strong shot, but hardly inspirational, potentially Gerrard, and Gareth Barry. A disappointment in Amsterdam though in fine form for his new club, Manchester City, at Blackburn the following Saturday. I have long admired him for his cool competence, but he is hardly dynamic, there is no change of pace, and he is essentially a holding player. One can hope and assume that he won’t make any more abysmal mistakes such as the one which gave away a goal to Holland.

As for Rio Ferdinand, we can only trust that, talented as he basically is, he will overcome his recently erratic concentration. Beside him in central defence, John Terry, who has now decided to stay with Chelsea at £130,000 a week, rather than respond to the lure of Manchester “money no object” City, he does seem still a reliable bulwark. But while I do feel that Glen Johnson is something of a loose defensive cannon, it is hard to see a right-back to replace him. Phil Neville, injured yet again, is surely in his declining years, nor did I ever see him as a defender of true international quality. But in the Premiership, English right-backs of real quality are an all too rare species.

Nor has the pervasive problem of goalkeeper been solved. Ben Foster, whom I’d long admired and hoped to see as first choice both for Manchester United and England, had a dire game at Wembley against Chelsea in the so-called Community Shield in front of 85,000 fans, when confidence seemed at a premium. Oh yes, there is always the 39-year-old David “Calamity” James, but now, surely as a last resort; you never can tell what he’ll do.