What now, Fabio?


Injuries and long absence have taken the edge off Michael Owen’s game and although he has at last resumed scoring, he is still far away from the Owen we knew and admired.

Wherever and whenever one goes to a Premier League game these days, Fabio Capello seems to be there. Shades of the days when Sven-Goran Eriksson was shakily in charge of England and, taking time from his various romantic activities, seemed to be seen wherever one went; almost as though there were a host of Sven-Goran look alikes. What Capello has seen of late cannot have encouraged him very much.

He, and I, at a recent weekend, were present at West Ham’s untidy, error-strewn match against Birmingham City, then at what was supposed to be a top of the range game between Chelsea and Liverpool; and with its tedious mediocrity, could have sent you to sleep. Terry Venables, a predecessor of Fabio as England manager, has justly expressed doubt whether Fabio would ever have sufficient time to improve the technique of English players, which he is rumoured to desire.

He has now deployed the England team for the first time at Wembley, against the Swiss. What lessons can he and we learn from that? In the first place that he will have to reconsider his tactics. Playing Wayne Rooney up front in a lone, central attacking role was never going to work and Fabio should really have known it. Remember how disastrously it ended in England’s last 2006 World Cup game against Portugal when a frustrated Rooney lost his temper, lashed out and received the inevitable red card.

In the second-half, things in attack improved when the lanky Peter Crouch came on, allowing Rooney to play effectively “in the hole” just behind him. But this brings us inevitably to consideration of who indeed should play as England centre-forward. Crouch did quite well against a Swiss team weakened by the absence of its two main strikers, but, as we saw in the Chelsea v Liverpool game, his elegance on the ground, despite his 6 ft-7 in. height, is not complemented by finishing power. At Stamford Bridge, he missed several chances.

Who, then, should fill the role? In an ideal world Michael Owen, who didn’t even get on the bench at Wembley. But things for the highly-gifted Owen, in the image of his struggling Newcastle United team, are alas anything but ideal. Injuries and long absence have taken the edge off his game and although he has at last resumed scoring for the Magpies, he is still far away from the Owen we knew and admired.

Big Emile Heskey? Who complemented Owen so well at Wembley earlier in the season? He, too, is endlessly subject to injury. Capello picked him for the Swiss game, but, almost inevitably, he had to drop out. Jermaine Defoe, who had just left Spurs for Portsmouth, after frustrating years at White Hart Lane, has the potential, but not the consistency, as striker. Omitted from the original squad, he was eventually called up and did get on the field. It’s embarrassingly hard to think of anybody else though the high promise and pace of the Aston Villa teenager, Agbonlahor, who was picked but had to drop out after being injured at Fulham, could in time be the answer. Andy Johnson of Everton works well at club level but has not convinced in an England jersey.

Then we come to the question of Micah Richards; and, by extension, of Manchester United’s Wes Brown, who took his place at Wembley. Preciously young, Manchester City’s Richards has won golden opinions both at right-back and centre-back for club and country. By contrast, Brown has long seemed a fallible defender, given to expensive mistakes. He did not dispel that impression at right-back against Switzerland. So why did Capello prefer him to Richards?

Apparently because Capello had watched the game in Manchester, where Richards, in the vernacular, was taken to the cleaners by the giant Arsenal centre-forward, Emmanuel Adebayor, against whom he was striving at centre-back. Yet, just as one swallow doesn’t make a summer, surely one poor game against a formidable opponent in devastating form shouldn’t consign a player, especially such a young player, to the dustbin of football history.

A dilemma exacerbated by the fact that right-backs of English nationality are pitifully thin on the ground. Phil Neville, who for better or for worse, occupied the position for years, is another who has been afflicted by persistent injury, and in any case is a veteran now. His brother, Gary, has filled the position in the past with reasonable competence, but hardly with international quality. So here we go again. The Premier League, whether or not because it includes such an abundance of foreign footballers, simply isn’t producing players in that position.

It was, however, hugely to Capello’s credit that he ignored the strident, silly voices demanding the return of David Beckham so he could win his 100th cap. Begging, thereby, the question of why he had ever accumulated as many in the first place. The facts that he hadn’t played a game for months, and that just prior to the Swiss match had been visiting Africa then disporting himself on a beach in Brazil, where he’s establishing (coals to Newcastle?) a soccer school, should automatically have ruled him out of consideration.

Fabio, diplomatically, insists the door is closed neither to Beckham nor to Owen, should they rediscover their form. But with the excellent David Bentley showing his skill both on the right flank and inside at Wembley, with Shaun Wright Phillips and the elusive, rapid Aaron Lennon showing the speed that Beckham never had (Lennon was playing for the Under 21s), who needs “Golden Balls”?