Gareth Barry has had an average season at best. His form has been patchy since his move to Manchester City and now his fitness is under scrutiny. However, the midfielder remains a key player for England, and with his injury and the fact that Owen Hargreaves has spent more of the last 18 months in the physio room than on the pitch, Fabio Capello has been left with an interesting dilemma ahead of the fast-approaching World Cup in South Africa. Barry was only named in the squad after a late fitness test and is doubtful for the opening game against the USA on June 12. Even after he is ‘fit to play’ it is possible that a lack of match sharpness will mean that England should not be too reliant on the former Aston Villa captain. But we probably will be. After all, what other options do we have?
Recent reports suggest that Capello may be on the verge of pairing Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard together in the centre of midfield with Joe Cole pencilled in for Gerrard’s normal position on the left side against the USA. But this system has been tried before and resulted in spectacular failure. The pairing was employed in 2004 and 2006 and each time England failed to break down stubborn Portuguese defences in the quarter final. As we saw when Barry was fit, England are a more potent attacking force when one of our midfield players ‘holds’, allowing the other three to press on, creating and scoring goals. The Three Lions rippled the net an impressive 34 times in 10 qualifiers using this technique. However, both the Chelsea and Liverpool stars probably lack the discipline to do this, while one must question whether Gerrard, whose confidence already looks rock bottom following an awful season at Anfield, would be further disheartened if he was asked to fill an unfamiliar role in a major tournament.
In any case, to sacrifice the attacking threat of either player would surely be suicidal on the big stage. Gerrard has 16 England goals and Lampard more than 20 (although some have come from the penalty spot), leaving them inferior to only strike pairing Wayne Rooney and Peter Crouch in the current squad. Joe Cole and Aaron Lennon are fine players and will undoubtedly terrorise defences in South Africa. However, they are not natural goalscorers, and Gerrard and Lampard’s attacking threat will be crucial in the tournament, particularly if the unproductive (if effective) Emile Heskey lines up alongside Rooney in attack.
What England really needed was a replacement for Barry; a like-for-like player who could have filled in for the City man until he was completely recovered from his ankle injury. Scott Parker had a fantastic season for West Ham, but I believe he lacks the technical qualities required to be a regular in England’s midfield. The immobile Tom Huddlestone, meanwhile, seemed a token selection by Capello and was never likely to be on the plane with Rooney, Ferdinand et al. Our desperation for a quality holding player was demonstrated when rumour began to circulate that Ledley King, a man who can barely even train, was being considered for the role against Japan. King is a world class centre half. However, he would be incapable of chasing around midfield for ninety minutes. He admitted so himself, and the whole idea smacked desperation.
The question that I am asking is why Everton prodigy Jack Rodwell wasn’t considered worthy of a place in Capello’s provisional 30-man squad. His inclusion would have represented a gamble on Capello’s part, but he was willing to include the uncapped Adam Johnson and there would have been no pressure on the Italian to name Rodwell in his final 23. Rodwell is both more mobile than Huddlestone and more technically gifted than Parker. He has enjoyed a fine season with Everton, showing his capability of rising to the big occasion when he scored against Manchester United and excelled in the Toffees’ Europa League campaign. He is also a holding midfielder, and his background as a centre back means that he also possesses the discipline that certain other players lack to play the position. He and Hargreaves are probably the only two English players who could have seamlessly stepped in to Barry’s shoes, but instead both will be watching events in South Africa unfold from the north-west this summer.
Rodwell would have been a gamble, but seeing what he could do in the pre-tournament friendlies represented no risk at all. Instead, Capello is stuck with the same problem as in previous years: how to combine Gerrard and Lampard. The worry for England fans must be that we will also be stuck with a familiar problem: a disappointingly early exit from the ‘golden generation’.
Written By Gareth Roberts