Sunday, 20 June 2010

The politics of an England five-man midfield

According to the Sunday Times, England’s players are urging Fabio Capello to include Joe Cole from the start in next Wednesday’s decisive group game against Slovenia. The players’ pleas echo those of England supporters. Cole has yet to feature in South Africa but fans of the national side are championing the Chelsea forward’s cause, seeing him as the man to loosen the static 4-4-2 approach that England have adopted so far at the World Cup.

After the 2-1 friendly win against Japan at the end of May, I made the case for England modifying their midfield in the latter stages of the tournament. However, with England almost certainly needing a win against the Slovenes to progress to the last sixteen, the game in Port Elizabeth has already taken on the complexion of a knockout tie. Joe Cole’s place in the side would come at the expense of Emile Heskey’s role up front and would leave England with five in midfield. While that tactical switch might sound like a cautious step, in that Wayne Rooney would be left as the side’s lone striker, the tactical flexibility that a five-man midfield offers makes the formation far superior to the now-outmoded 4-4-2.

A glance at the line-ups for Saturday’s World Cup games proves that the presiding way of playing is with one man up front, and that this can allow for either attacking or cautious play. The Netherlands used Robin van Persie in the centre against Japan, who operated with Keisuke Honda at the point of their attack. That game happened to be one of the tournament’s most tedious so far, but the evening match between Denmark and Cameroon was far better. Denmark played with Nicklas Bendtner alone up front but he was supported by Jon Dahl Tomasson tucked in behind and two classic wingers either side, Dennis Rommedahl and Jesper Gronkjaer. Cameroon moved Samuel Eto’o into the middle after having exiled him to the right of midfield against Japan, but he was still operating deeper than a traditional striker when linking with Achille Webo in attack.

Were Joe Cole to start against Slovenia, England’s five in midfield would be staggered into a group of two and a group of three. Some pundits would play two men in front of the defence and use three in support of Rooney, while others advocate a three-man screen ahead of the back four and two players behind the striker. According to the writers in the Sunday Times, joining Cole in midfield would be four from Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry, Aaron Lennon, and Shaun Wright-Phillips. However, I would be inclined to recall James Milner and use him in tandem with Barry as England’s holding midfielders, with Gerrard, Lampard, and Cole ahead of the pair. Michael Carrick still has his supporters, with Spain’s Xabi Alonso praising the out-of-form Manchester United midfielder recently, but I would still back Milner’s energy over Carrick recovering his passing ability.

Regardless of how the midfield five are arranged, though, splitting them into two departments – one defensive, one attacking – reflects both evolution for the national side and, dare I say it, change in the national psyche too. England does not circumscribe the whole of the United Kingdom, I realise, but the recent election result has left the country with a coalition government and a feeling amongst the people that the three-party political system has run its course. Likewise, the division of football formations into strict defensive, midfield, and attacking units is also old-fashioned. Instead of operating with three lines of players, as in a traditional 4-4-2, staggering the midfield personnel in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-2-1 formation gives the team an extra dimension. This particular fourth dimension is not time, of course, but it might just prolong England’s stay in the tournament beyond the group stage.

Against Slovenia, the roles of England’s midfield players should be defined by their links with the players immediately behind or ahead of them, in defence and attack, instilling a spirit of cooperation in the side that complements, on paper at least, the political union currently in charge of the nation. Just as every right-minded person knows that the country cannot ride out these times of financial hardship without harmony and understanding between its different socio-economic groups, England fans are hoping that a five-man coalition of forward and defensive-minded players in midfield will finally see the team performing with the fluidity that they so lacked against the United States and Algeria. This theoretical leap of mine, from politics to football, might risk stretching my initial point – that England’s midfield must adapt or the team’s World Cup hopes will die – but we are entering a week in which the new Con-Lib government will announce its first budget. Taxes and benefits that apply to middle-class households are likely to come under close scrutiny, given their importance to the economic recovery, meaning that the centre ground of the nation’s finances and the centre ground of the England football team are both entering a critical week.


  1. Good post. I thought that England should go with Barry & Carrick at the base of the midfield, with one of Gerrard/Lampard/Cole/Wright Phillips occupying the attacking positions.

  2. Carrick had a very good game against Egypt in March. I would like Milner to be given a second chance though. He was built up before the World Cup and then hauled off after 30 mins against the US.

  3. Will, what's with the politics? Aren't we all depressed enough? With your literature background I expected you to be more like James Lawton. Anyway I have added you to Google reader so I can see what you think in order to pass it off as my own opinion during the day.

    I don't think that playing 4-4-2 is the reason that we can't beat these teams, does playing 4-4-2 really mean that you can't beat Slovenia? We've beaten teams better than that using 4-4-2 surely, however the players are obviously unhappy. Since the England players think that Crouch, Heskey and Defoe aren't good enough (though surely not Crouch, Heskey or Defoe?) then perhaps we should try something different.

    It is a shame that our midfield is so poor as well. In my opinion the poorest so far (and for a while) has been 'fat' Frank Lampard and as such I would drop him, give Gerrard a free role with Milner, Cole, Barry, Lennon and Carrick (in absence of anyone else 'good'). I think that Barry should be given the cover role in front of the back four with Cole and Lennon on the flanks and Milner a more proactive role utilising his considerable stamina to breakdown opposition passages of play all over the field.

    Also the players revolt shows that they care about the performances, else they wouldn't insult the other strikers ("striker" in Heskey's case).

  4. The black and white labels "Midfielder" and "Attacker" seem to be increasingly blurred in reality these days - one could argue that David Villa was effectively playing on the left wing last night for Spain and yet his was as potent a performance as anyone's. A good article that sums up the fluidity of the modern game. England have 24 hours to grasp this.

  5. Bob -

    Capello played 4-4-2 after all then. As you suspected, it was enough to beat Slovenia. But despite sticking with a formation that I believe has had its day, the movement today was far better. Milner hugged the right touchline while Gerrard moved infield, with Cole overlapping and Rooney drifting wide too. After all the debates over formations and systems over the last few days, it was good just to see the players creating space for one another this time.

    Lanterne Rouge -

    Thanks for your comment. There are fewer and fewer top class strikers who can only really operate through the middle - Drogba is one obvious example, but that doesn't make him any less of a threat. I agree, Villa was very good on Monday night and we already know how dangerous Rooney and Messi can be when they start from wide positions.