Rooney*.Gerrard. Lampard. Ashley Cole. Gareth Barry. For their club sides, these are world class players worth tens of millions of pounds. But stick them together, slap an England jersey on them, and suddenly it becomes difficult to tell them apart from Algeria. Just ask the scoreline.
Algeria were tiring down the stretch (you could tell from all the cramping), and England upped the pressure somewhat, but to say “they lacked the final ball” would be doing a great service by overlooking how many times they never even got to the final ball. Passes were sent behind attackers, corners were constantly blasted into the first defender, players had the ball taken off their feet with ease — this was a tentative, occasionally meek, performance.
The implications on the group are profound. England will have to beat a quick, confident Slovenian team to have a realistic chance of advancing. The US can advance with a win vs Algeria, which is hardly looking guaranteed, or can go on if both games end in a tie again and England doesn’t outscore them by 2 or more. In other words, the two teams most likely to win the group are Slovenia and the USA. Strange times.
Algeria never showed much in attack, but they made very few mistakes in defense. And remember, they had a goalkeeping failure of their own vs Slovenia or they’d have blanked their first two opponents. It’s safe to say they’re a tough nut to crack.
And for England, where to go from here?
For my money, there’s one major problem with this squad: it has no X-factor. I debated this a bit with the fun @empowerfootall folks, and my argument is this: teams need a blend of experience and youthful unpredictability.
If a squad is comprised only of grizzled veterans who are entirely known quantities to each other and the world, it can lack creativity, exuberance, hope, and most of all, unpredictability. Having a few young players available whose ceilings are unknown, even to themselves, changes the dynamic of a whole team. Off the pitch, their naivete is probably the butt of a great many jokes, but the enthusiasm and hope that comes without having failed before can and often does rub off on the older players. In a game, when a team is flat or struggling to break open a game, injecting a young player who brings creativity, pace, and energy can be a pick-me-up to older players. Even they might be wondering, “let’s see what this kid can do.”
Doesn’t really matter which kid it is, you just need a few of them. Adam Johnson was the obvious choice this year. He made a splash for Man City with his pace and deft passing in the final third. His game isn’t rich with subtlety or anything, but he wakes up the players around them. Clearly, England could use a bit of that.
So where does Capello, who doesn’t actually have Adam Johnson and seems to have made all the wrong moves so far, go from here? I say he needs as much X-ness as possible. Carragher will be out after 2 yellows, so go with uncapped Michael Dawson. Drop Heskey, add the productive Joe Cole. Maybe even drop Lampard for Cole, who seems to fade into the background for England and plays too much like “captain” Steven Gerrard. Then you can play Defoe or Crouch for Heskey.
However he chooses, he needs to shake this team up. If England fail to make it out of the group, he’ll be looking for a new job anyway.
* Or what passes for Rooney. He looks hurt or exhausted. The Rooney of midseason would be a massive boon right about now.