It was only last year that I was championing Fabio Capello as an intelligent and adaptable manager capable of improving considerably on England’s tournament record. Then disastrous preparation for the World Cup in South Africa and the handling of the captaincy fiasco transformed him from hero to zero for the whole nation. Yesterday’s draw with Switzerland, in a game England should have won at Wembley, was further evidence that Capello should have gone after the failure of the World Cup.
Capello’s main failing at the moment, above his poor communication skills and shoddy organisation, is his refusal to move on from ageing stars. Frank Lampard started as part of a three man midfield yesterday but England improved dramatically after the break when Capello brought on Young in his place, who should have started the game. Young scored a smart goal.
England have real pace and youthful pentration available on the flanks. The likes of Young, Downing, Johnson, Lennon and Walcott ought to be utilised more often. It’s taken Capello too long to give them international playing experience. The best teams at the big tournaments are units of quality players that have played together for a number of years, since the promise of their youth. Look at the German and Spanish sides.
In the centre of midfield, Jack Wilshere is the future. Capello has finally decided to give him a key role. But he continually plays alongside Parker and Lampard. Lampard is past his best and should be a squad member, not an integral part of the team for the long term. Parker was exposed yesterday; he is not the solution to England’s midfield woes. Capello needs to look to younger options for a holding midfield partner for Wilshere. Tom Huddlestone perhaps?
On the other hand, Capello consistently neglects experienced international players that could still play a vital role in his squad. His new found fetish for Darren Bent as a lone striker has alienated Peter Crouch, with rumours swirling today that he’s ruled himself out of international duty whilst Capello remains in charge. Michael Owen would have scored the chance Bent had to win the game, undeservedly, for England against Switzerland. Michael Carrick has been superb for Manchester United and would compliment Wilshere well. His passing ability is well suited to internationals.
A year ago I thought one of Capello’s key attributes was decisiveness. He dealt excellently with the John Terry crisis at first, only to divide the dressing room with his terribly handled reinstatement. However the defining aspect of his tenure looks set to be indecision. Extraordinarily Capello didn’t know his best eleven before the 2010 World Cup. He still won’t know his best eleven before Euro 2012, if England get there. He appears torn between entrusting the team’s hopes to youth or tried and tested experience. And when he tries to balance the two, he picks the wrong ingredients.
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The title is theirs. Carlo Ancelotti did his best to fire up the Chelsea players, repeatedly calling it their cup final, but the Red Devils proved too strong at Old Trafford. The Theatre of Dreams has been a fortress of consistency in a curiously unpredictable season. Often it’s appeared as though no one wanted the league enough but ultimately United’s experienced desire was superior, and it was at its lustful best against Chelsea.
It seems as though we might be witnessing a time of real change in football, particularly in the Premiership. Every team in the league is capable of taking points from the top sides. The notion of a traditional top four is crumbling and the ways in which clubs are preserving their success are evolving too. The era of the successful big money signing appears to have past. Of course there are exceptions, with Manchester City the latest to flash the cash, but the big teams doing well this season were not dependent on new signings or even one standout performer. Arsenal may have once again fallen at the crucial stage of the race, but they were United’s primary challengers for most of the campaign. Their squad has grown gradually over the years.
And so has Manchester United’s. Since the departure of Ronaldo to Real Madrid Sir Alex Ferguson has continued to ignore the calls from fans, myself included, for more expensive replacements. Instead he has focused on improving the players he already has by carefully managing their experience of important fixtures, as well as bringing in some future investments (with some paying off early, such as Javier Hernandez). The failures of other teams have proved his strategy right. He has also once again settled on a different tactical vision for his side. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Champions League.
United have not conceded a goal away from home in the competition. They have done this by mastering a drilled and disciplined style of play. In many ways this is at odds with the entertaining, attacking tradition of the club. But Ferguson has been wise enough to recognise that the strengths of his team have changed. In 2008 when they defeated Chelsea in the final, United were a team boasting the sparkle and individual talent of Berbatov, Rooney, Tevez and Ronaldo. These days United have become a highly efficient and effective collective unit. Their starting eleven appears inferior in terms of talent, but they are no longer dependent on stars to succeed.
Having said this they will still need the key players in their unit, particularly Rooney, to be at their best if they are to beat Barcelona at Wembley. This is because the Catalans have the collective mentality of the current United side, as well as happening to have a team bursting with world class footballers. Ferguson insists he knows where his team went wrong in the final of 2009 against the Spaniards. He has been able to rotate his squad with extreme flexibility to get what he wants from a game, with whoever comes in doing what is required of them. But against Barcelona nothing less than his best combination of midfielders will do.
For it was in midfield that United lost the 2009 final. They can take some comfort from the fact that Yaya Toure, who scored the goal that ended United’s treble hopes in the FA Cup semi with Man City, will no longer be an immovable object at Barcelona’s core. It was he that overpowered Carrick and co so fatally. But nowadays the likes of Javier Mascherano are there to provide a defensive screen from which Iniesta and Xavi can create for the devastating abilities of Villa and Messi up front. Somehow United’s players will have to get a grip on possession.
Carrick has been unfairly derided in the past. He is a world class passer of the ball who can provide both a defensive shield and attacking platform. In recent weeks his resurgent form has added vital impetus to a tough run in. But there will still be question marks over whether or not he will perform for the big occasion and whether he will once again be outmuscled. He seems likely to start though given his involvement lately, so Ferguson must decide who to play alongside him and in what formation.
With the main worry being a lack of possession it’s likely we’ll see a three man central midfield, with Rooney leading the line alone. This robs United’s prize asset of much of his threat and his deadly combination with Javier Hernandez. It will also put him under pressure that might lead to frustration, which is a dangerous cocktail for his volatile temperament. Against Chelsea a two fingered salute to the Blues fans was a sharp reminder that the striker is way off the level of maturity required for a captaincy, of England or his club.
Darren Fletcher could be the missing link, as he missed the final two years ago through suspension. He would add the grit that was so evidently missing that night. But this time around its fitness that will be a problem for the Scot. Giggs has been majestic in some vital fixtures this campaign but mediocre in others. Anderson and Scholes seem unlikely to feature, but Ji-Sung Park, especially after his man of the match display against Chelsea, might be chosen to be a busy thorn in Barcelona’s side. It’s interesting and baffling that Dimitar Berbatov, the team’s main source of goals in the league and an undoubtedly dazzling player, is not being seriously considered by any commentators for a starting place. Ferguson does not trust him for the big fixtures and Rooney plays better with Hernandez ahead of him. The Bulgarian’s future will be one to watch in the summer, despite being top scorer.
It’s a one off game at Wembley. Ferguson will have learnt genuine lessons from two years ago and the togetherness of his new team will be a challenge for Barcelona, just as their undeniable quality will be a challenge for United. The tantalising thing for United fans is that if they are successful here, in theory such a young squad should only improve with experience, without the need for drastic and expensive imports.
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