Offside, 16 May
Don't worry about England's midfield injuries - our World Cup weakness will be the defence.
‘Sickener’, wailed the Sun as Kieron Dyer and Steven Gerrard joined England’s ever-expanding injury list.
To recap, for the last month the English nation has been sweating over David Beckham’s foot, aka The Foot. Then Gary Neville broke a bone in his somewhat less illustrious foot. By now English men were thinking about metatarsals as often as they thought about sex (and sometimes both at the same time).
Actually, the nation didn’t lose much sleep over Neville’s broken foot. Or rather we didn’t until we found out that Leeds United’s notorious red-card magnet Danny Mills would be on the plane to Japan. Furthermore, just as The Foot was walking again news came of Kieron Dyer’s knee and Steven Gerrard’s groin (and no, the Sun won’t be asking readers to lay their hands on a picture of Stevie’s Groin).
Have England’s hopes been dashed before a ball has even been kicked in anger? I think we need to keep things in perspective. For a start, Dyer and Gerrard are sicknote kings, who would have ended up on the treatment table eventually. They’ve just saved us the inevitable anguish of watching them limp off midway through a vital match.
And although Gerrard’s range of passing and his ability to score goals from midfield will be missed, both Nicky Butt and Owen Hargreaves can operate in the holding midfield role. A bigger problem for England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson is finding a replacement for Kieron Dyer on the left side of midfield.
But the fact that Dyer, a right-footed player with precious little international experience, was considered the automatic choice for the left flank really shows up the limitations of England’s squad. Steve McManaman plays in that position at Real Madrid and his omission from the squad has raised some eyebrows. ‘It’s a surprise because as well as being a great player sometimes it’s also good to have people like McManaman in the squad for morale’, said club colleague Fernando Morientes. It’s not exactly clear what Morientes means by ‘people like McManamam’, but the implication seems to be that it’s good to have a cheeky Scouser in the dressing room. A shame then that Sven already has Robbie Fowler and has no need for another wisecracking Scouser.
Despite Macca’s undoubted talent he has never really delivered for England when it mattered. Neither has Joey Cole, but the pundits are already suggesting that the skilful West Ham midfielder could make a name for himself in Japan as Gazza did in Italia ’90.
I’ve always been a big fan of Cole even though a friend of mine – let’s call him Friend X – cruelly insists that, far from being the new Gazza, he is actually a ‘huggable Down’s Syndrome kid’. Friend X overlooks the fact that Cole has that rare ability to take on and beat defenders, which could be the key to unlocking well-organised international defences in Japan. Some consider him to be a show-pony, but this season he has added a new tactical dimension to his game. He may not be in the starting line-up but he wouldn’t be on the plane if Sven didn’t think he was ready.
The England players can at least now travel to Japan without the inflated weight of expectation that, having beaten an inept German team in Munich, they were now world-beaters. ‘If we had a full staff I think we could have a good show and perhaps win, but as things now stand, the favourites are Argentina, Brazil, France, Italy’, says Sir Bobby Charlton, whose groundless optimism has given way to a more realistic assessment.
The loss of Gerrard and Dyer is a blow to England, but any team that contains Owen, Becks (if fit), and ‘the little ginger fella’ (Scholes) is capable of scoring goals. However, the public hand-wringing over the midfield crocks has obscured the fact that England’s real weakness has always been its defence. Even in the 5-1 defeat of Germany the defence didn’t look entirely convincing and poor defending at home to Greece nearly cost England the game.
Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, Gareth Southgate and Martin Keown are solid Premiership centre-backs without being world class; Wes Brown and Danny Mills are mere pups at this level; and Ashley Cole, though exciting going forward, is still defensively naive at times.
More importantly, the back four does not function as a cohesive unit like the French or Italian rearguards. Without a world-class defence – and I’m prepared to eat my football shorts if I’m wrong – England simply cannot win the World Cup.
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