Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Natural Selection

I think the England World Cup squad may yet throw up a few surprises, mainly because people are generally talking about it in terms of a first-choice XI we already more or less know, and then eleven understudies. (And a third-choice goalkeeper of course. As an aside, could people please stop all this DO WE RLY NEED 3 KEEPERS? gibberish that rears its head at every tournament? Of course you need three keepers – it’s unlikely that you’ll use them all but if you only take two and one gets crocked or suspended, the team will spend the next match shitting themselves at the possibility of the second-choice keeper going the same way. Do you want to watch England play an hour of a World Cup semi-final with John Terry in nets? Do you want to see it go to penalties? All right, if you don’t support England it might be funny, but the point remains that you’d have to be a gibbering idiot to take only two keepers to a tournament.)

Now, where was I? Yes – the way we talk about the squad suggests a need to have one player to back up every position. I don’t believe this is necessary. Eriksson’s biggest mistake in picking his 2006 squad wasn’t selecting Walcott (although it seems odd now that he nominally went as a striker, rather than a midfielder), but taking Jermaine Jenas. Presumably he was included as cover for Lampard but it struck me at the time that you don’t need cover for Lampard, because his absence would enable you to move Gerrard into his preferred position. If Gerrard and Lampard were both injured, Joe Cole could play there. (Downing was in the squad and could have covered the left wing.) By dumping a midfielder, Eriksson could have taken the five strikers he clearly needed.

I think what you want are a few players in the squad who can cover a few positions in case of injury, and that leaves some spaces free for players who can offer different options. This was Eriksson’s other biggest problem – the lack of a plan B. As Graham Taylor said during the friendly with Japan on Sunday, at this level you need flexibility. In that match Fabio Capello experimented with a 4-3-3 with two cut-inside wingers on either side of Rooney, which is a good idea what with him being amazing playing for Man Utd in that position and what with England having no shortage of wingers at the moment.

In that situation it’d be good to have both Joe Cole and Adam Johnson available – especially because if we played one on each wing we could have Cole and Johnson on one flank and Johnson and Cole down the other, which would be brilliant. But there isn’t room in the squad for both of them and Gerrard, Lampard, Barry, Carrick/Huddlestone, Milner AND two right wingers, is there?

I think there is. We’ve only got one recognised right-back in the squad. Jamie Carragher is officially covering for him, but there’s also Milner, who has played there for Villa several times. With that in mind, Carragher can provide cover at centre-back too – so how many centre-backs do we need? Capello might decide that Ferdinand’s fitness is so precarious that he wants plenty of cover there, but if he could make do with four centre-backs (including Carragher) that would free up space in midfield – enough to accommodate an extra winger.

This of course ignores what should be Capello’s top priority: the narrative. For a successful World Cup we need players with narrative potential, and Cole (J) and Johnson (A) happen to have the best narratives in the squad: the potential comeback (even better, Cole seems to have played his last game for his club) and the rise from nowhere. Who cares about positions and systems? You have to take both of them. Chuck out Carrick if need be, his narrative’s rubbish.