One day removed from another vacant performance, several English players sat down last night and had a beer with their manager, the Telegraph reported Sunday.
Understandably depressed, as most English fans are, after a numbing nil-nil draw with Algeria Friday, vice-captain John Terry and several other players reportedly expressed their opinions about England's best formation, over vino and pints, to Fabio Capello on his birthday.
Terry spoke of squad division and differing opinions—some red, some blue—regarding what must be done to ensure progression against Slovenia on Wednesday.
It is rumored that several members of the squad believe Gerrard must play closer to solitary striker Rooney. Another belief present in the squad is that Joe Cole must start. (Hopefully proponents of both realize that the two are mutually exclusive.)
He also implied some rebellion against their stalwart, cerebral manager, stating "When things don’t go too well it is important the lads stay together. That is what we had the other night when we expressed ourselves.’’
Oddly, with all the talk of unity and division, captains and responsibility, there are no quotables from David Beckham. But, if nothing else, the English are good at camaraderie. Ball-busting and banter are part of their footballing culture.
No, morale isn't much of an issue for the English players. They're mostly too simple to overthink their mateships. Nor is the real problem the media, their country's expectations, or any other arbitrary pressures that all participating sides are struggling to balance.
Vertical tactical shift
England's celebrated manager, who made the side appear so attractive leading up to the tournament, despite being a highly-touted tactician, has shifted his strategic paradigm nostalgically similar to his failed predecessors.
When Capello regrettably left Adam Johnson at home, he doomed his side to play like the same-old modern England: hoofing long balls forward, hoping they're nodded on to Rooney, because sadly, like other recent England managers come-and-gone, Capello doesn't have the balls to sit either Lampard or Gerrard in lieu of the other.
Relegating Gerrard or Lampard unnaturally to the left wing, and unimaginatively plopping Heskey next to worker-finisher Rooney, just as McClaren and Erickson did, will see Capello and England fall tragically out of the world's biggest sporting tournament, two years after the same squad failed to qualify for Euro 2008.
Either Gerrard or preferably Lampard must sit to allow the other to play with the holding Barry if England are to succeed Wednesday in a 4-4-2.
The Oggmonster Peter Crouch must replace Heskey if England continue to use this formation. He enables England's blunt attack by winning more headers, being more mobile, having better feet, trickery, and generally better at everything than Heskey. The lanky Spurs forward must replace him if Capello opts to use two forwards.
If, as Chelsea's Terry and Lampard wish, their former club teammate Joe Cole is drafted in against Slovenia, he can certainly help on the left side where England now lack a natural left-winger. But he doesn't offer the width that Shaun Wright-Phillips can on that side.
This makes Cole's best position the right side with SWP on the left. If Cole is in the form that Terry suggests, a flier on him out there couldn't hurt, as Aaron Lennon has failed to impress and seems to prefer impacting games as a substitute, anyway.
If Capello plays 4-5-1, with Rooney up front alone—overestimating, as everyone does, his ability—both Lampard and Gerrard could feature in a five-man midfield with two wingers while Barry holds.
But Rooney himself, it must be said, is more effective with a partner, at club level and beyond: Even while he was tapping in goal after goal for United in a 4-5-1 last season, his outfield play was usually quite mediocre.
Besides, England must win to ensure progression into the elimination rounds. Therefore, Capello must use their most attacking formation. Crouch must be drafted in instead of Heskey, and either Gerrard or Lampard must sit, instead of lampooning either uncomfortably on the left wing.
Ultimately, though, the bewildering decision not to take a player as promising as Adam Johnson to ameliorate England's historic achilles heel—natural width on the left—may be dooming.
A time for discipline, a time not
Hopefully this was all sorted out in a bevy of man-hugs and cheers as players and manager relaxed Sunday evening to rationalize over pints.
A source from Soccernet said Sunday that Capello's message to his side would be "Just play." Hopefully his desperate players find his terse imploration more profound than specious.
Their manager's stern propensity for discipline and sense was indeed useful, if not crucial, to changing the failing atmosphere at the England camp post-McClaren. He led the Three Lions through friendlies and World Cup qualifiers with aplomb and authority, garnering respect, if not outright fear, from a usually domineering British media.
But now that the tournament proper is upon them, his side would likely perform better if they were allowed to relax more, by manager and country, heading into the make-or-break match against a stodgy Slovenian side. Their countenance got them here; they no longer need it.
But, any wide range of understandable pressures, egos, affiliations, or the timing of the team-sheet won't add or detract especially from England's performance if their gaffer dogmatically trots out the same uninspired line-up, employing the same dull, vertical attacking style only freshly inscribed on the tombstones of predecessors he once appeared so superior to.
“It does seem like two years’ work was for nothing,” Capello told The Mirror Monday. Hopefully it isn't any more apparent come Thursday morning.