Tag Archives: Wayne Rooney

Space Cadet Hodgson steers his team of astronauts to the World Cup Finals

18 Oct

So, congratulations to Roy’s boys.  Obviously last night’s qualification is all just laying the groundwork for when Adnan Januzaj links up with the squad in 2018.   But let’s crack open the Babycham and enjoy a small celebration in the meantime anyway.  We’re off to Brazil!

Judging by the lack of dancing in the fountains of Trafalgar Square on Tuesday night, England fans appear to have taken the news in a measured stride.  Rightly so.  On a sheer numbers game alone, the fifth most populace nation in the European confederation really ought to be able to secure one of the thirteen berths on offer. 

Too Good has never been convinced that Roy Hodgson was a particularly good choice for England manager, but that’s for another day and another article.  Now would be an unkind and unjust time to shine a harsh light on that decision.  It’s touching that Hodgson has declared qualification as his proudest moment in football and he deserves praise for extracting an undefeated 10-game run through the qualifiers[1].

Poland had more than enough chances in the final group game to keep England fans entirely honest about their prospects in Brazil.  As many opportunities as England had at one end of the pitch, Robert Lewandowski could have had three goals at the other end in the first half hour alone.  The best of the bunch, whistling past Joe Hart’s post on 22 minutes, caught the palpably relieved Hodgson mouthing the words “f*** me” on camera.  While we all await Roy’s donation for the swear jar, I ought to confess I muttered something awfully similar.  It could have been bleak.

This was England’s last competitive game before tournament play begins next June.  There’s still quite a few things for Hodgson to mull over between now and then.  Too Good has a look under the bonnet of the Three Lions, takes a sharp intake of breath, and gives its tuppence on what’s running well and what needs a little tinkering with.

Strikers

Let’s start with something positive.  If Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge can stay fit, that’s a great front pairing.  Both are genuinely classy players.  In Rooney’s case, world class.  England can count their lucky stars that Scotland narrowly missed out on laying claim to Wazza as a youngster. He is looking composed and on form. 

While still no stranger to rage’s hypnotic grip, Rooney seems to have calmed a little in recent years.  Perhaps, with a certain amount of good fortune, he may manage only his second ever international tournament unfettered by suspension, red cards or injury.

Sturridge has parachuted into international football with all the same lethal composure he has been showing in domestic competition.  England’s best chances of prosperity this summer will come from hitching our wagons to these two gifted strikers.  Which is just as well, given that the options up front fall off a cliff after that.  Best not to even think about it.

Midfield

As odd as it sounds, the centre of midfield needs a bit of careful thought between now and June.  There’s plenty of players to choose from, just no obvious pairing/triumverate.  Since he’s made him captain, you have to assume Hodgson will play Steven Gerrard if fit.  He’ll need someone to do the running though, as Gerrard is no longer the cavalry charge on legs that he once was.  A 36 year old Frank Lampard is unlikely to be a starting option by the summer, although academics of the game postulate that he and Gerrard never really gelled together anyway. 

It’s difficult to see Gerrard and Jack Wilshere playing as a two, but then a three-pronged central midfield runs the risk of sacrificing Sturridge and leaving a one-man Rooney-shaped attack.  This cannot be allowed to happen.  It is not impossible that Wilshere may find himself being accommodated in a wide midfield position for country, as he has found himself for club recently.

Some of you are probably already mumbling “Michael Carrick” under your breath as you read this.  The Emperor’s New Carrick has his proponents, but I swear to God he’s just wandering through the streets naked.  People watch Carrick never attempt anything glamorous and praise this as “assured” and “steady”.  I’m fine with him being slow of foot but he’s slow of ball too, and that’s unforgiveable in his position.  He practically needs a signed letter from the opposition that they won’t trespass into his passing lane before he attempts a first-time pass. 

If a designated holder is required, Gareth Barry is a better option.  I occasionally amuse friends and acquaintances by referring to Gareth Barry as “one of the quickest players in England”.  The fact of the matter is that when it comes to recycling the play, when it comes to keeping the football hurtling around at pace, and when it comes to dragging opposition players out of position because a player is willing (and capable) of risking a fist-time ball, there are few to match Gareth Barry.  Bloody well watch him if you disagree.  The difference between he and Carrick is a sense of urgency.  Critical when you have to unlock an opposition constantly readjusting and reforming their defensive shape.

Lest we forget, despite being consigned to the international scrapheap, Barry has been a starting choice in a Premiership midfield much better than the one Michael Carrick plays in over the last two years.  His loan move to Everton this summer was a very clear indication that Barry wants to guarantee game-time this season to ensure his world cup selection chances aren’t unduly hampered. 

Maybe Hodgson can conjure a formation that requires neither of the two, but Barry should get the nod if one is deemed necessary.

Defence

Defence is probably the area which will engage Roy’s worry the least.  The centre-back pairing of Jagielka and Cahill looks solid enough and we have sufficient full-backs to populate the remaining 31 teams in the competition.  At right-back alone, any of Kyle Walker, Glenn Johnson, Micah Richards, Chris Smalling, and Phil Jones could more than adequately do the job.  Teddy Sheringham recently mooted that even Steven Gerrard could do a job thereThe suggestion is one rich with temptation.  England benefiting from Gerrard’s range of distribution and general ability, while freeing up space for other options in the centre of the park. 

Indeed, Gerrard played right-back during extra-time of a particularly memorable evening in Istanbul a little while ago.  He did an excellent job, too; making vital blocks and interceptions.  Such hare-brained tactical juggling wouldn’t be without historical precedence for England, either.  Against Germany in the semi-finals of Euro ’96, another roving, goal-scoring midfielder was deployed at right-back.  David Platt.  Keep an open mind, Roy.

Goalkeeper

Eyebrows have been raised in the direction of Head and Shoulders’ poster-boy, Joe Hart, in recent weeks.  A few less mistakes from the England’s number one would certainly be most welcome.  But let’s be absolutely frank about this, Hodgson better damn well hope Hart doesn’t pick up an injury between now and the end of the season.  The thought of an untried Fraser Forster, John Ruddy, Ben Foster or Jack Butland donning the gloves in Brazil is enough to put any England fan off their pre-game caipirinha.  In terms of sheer lack of a viable replacement, only Rooney is more indispensable than Hart.

Conclusion

A favourite game of mine since childhood has been to speculate on whether I will live to see the day England win a World Cup. 

Historically, given my comparative youth and England’s odds usually being somewhere in the region of 10 or 11-1 at World Cups, I have always given myself at least a 50% chance of seeing England hoist the trophy.  It was a comforting thought; knowing that I had a better-than-evens chance of seeing us do the business before I set sail for the great penalty box in the sky.    

As I become a little more advanced in years, and England’s odds begin to creep out[2], I’m now not so sure.  Assuming I have maybe fourteen more tournaments left in me, would I say I have a forty per cent chance of seeing it happen in my lifetime?  Thirty per cent?  Twenty?  You’d be a bullish punter to still put it at 50:50. 

Sadly, when August rolls around, I suspect I will be looking at even longer odds again. 

You never know, though…

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Roy’s preparations for the summer are already under way.


[1] Although, to keep this in context, Italy have now gone 40 games without losing a World Cup or European qualifier.

[2] Betfair currently has England at a decidedly limp 23/1 for the win in Brazil 2014.

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Ashley Cole and Other Guilty Pleasures…

20 Sep

Everyone has a guilty pleasure in life.  Whether it be a crafty cigarette last thing at night, taking the wife for a spot of swinging or even, God forbid, watching rugby union once the curtains are drawn.  We all have a little something we seek elicit enjoyment from.  My guilty pleasure is Ashley Cole.

I’ll happily admit to regularly being out of touch with the sentiment of the nation.  The opprobrium that the general public reserves for Ashley Cole I do understand, though.  He’s not exactly a tour de force in public relations.  But watching children less than half his age shout expletives at him every single time he took a throw-in at Old Trafford the other week reminded me that I don’t actually mind the fella all that much.  I really don’t.

Discussion on England’s number one “No. 3” tends to surmise two things.  One, that he’s quite a dislikeable character; and two, that he’s a fantastic fullback.  I’m going to make the case that, one, he’s not really that dislikeable (at least, not within the somewhat forgiving context of being a professional footballer); and, two, that he is a fantastic footballer but not for the reasons most seem to think.  I suspect Cole’s number will soon be up for the national side[1], so now seems as good a time as any to take a look back over his career.  As a left-back myself, I’m going into bat for a fellow brother-in-arms.

Girls

Let’s get the non-footballing side out of the way first.  Cole’s epitaph is not going to refer to as him as an award-winning husband.  He’s a naughty lad and we ought not to try to defend him on this.  While wedded to the lovely Cheryl, Ashley was caught dancing the Underpants Charleston with more than one woman who was not his bride.  Of course, he’s not exactly the first professional footballer to have been caught with his trousers in absentia.  If Cole is to be judged by his peers, let’s at least be aware of whom his peers are…

The game is littered with sinful romancers but fans rarely seem to pass judgement[2].  Horny quadragenarian, Ryan Giggs, is the only thing that stands between Ed Miliband and the title of “Britain’s Worst Brother”.  Yet the randy Welsh swordsman is nothing short of revered throughout the footballing community.  John Terry seems to experience something of a Pavlovian reaction whenever he sees a team-mate’s girlfriend and Wayne Rooney will grab anyone so long as they’re at least ten years older than Giggsy.  Even Sir Becks once had a moment of weakness with the nanny.  The point being, if we are to pluck our heroes from the narrow spring that is faithful professional footballers, we’re going to have some rather slim pickings from which to choose. 

Money

Then there’s the suggestion that Cole’s greedy; premised on the now infamous quote from his autobiography that he “nearly swerved off the road” when he was informed of Arsenal’s offer of £55k/week during salary negotiations.  It is a testimony to Ashley’s gripping prose and well-crafted writing style that this quote has become so well known, since the book itself sold a meagre 4,000 copies. 

While we can all reach pragmatic conclusions on the merits of a millionaire publicly complaining about his weekly wages, Cole was at least expressing an honestly held view that is unlikely to be unique (if, indeed, a view more often kept private).  So at what point does it become vulgar to complain about money? 

If you earn the average UK wage that already puts you in the top 1% of earners worldwide.  I suspect this wouldn’t stop many of us from aiming a few metaphorical “teacups” at a few figurative “walls” if our paymasters offered us a salary that was barely half of our expected earnings based on the industry standard.  Certainly, the staff writers at Too Good would have my head on a stick if they weren’t rewarded handsomely for their journalistic prowess.  Prince or pauper, people want to feel fairly compensated.

Football

So let’s turn to the important bit.  Cole’s playing abilities.  We can certainly all agree on one thing.  He is an excellent (a consistently excellent) footballer.  One of England’s finest.  I’m not sure it’s always fully appreciated why, though. 

He’s not a complete left-back.  And he certainly isn’t a wing-back.  In fact, he isn’t really fantastic at going forward at all.  He isn’t a goal threat[3] or, for that matter, a man with a great many assists to his name.  Despite being a striker in his youth, Cole just doesn’t have the attacking instinct that for years some people seemed to suggest he had (probably explaining why he never did get that “confirmed kill” when taking aim at the summer intern).  His forays in opposition territory certainly aren’t up there with some of the great attacking full-backs of the past 20 years (Cafu, Lahm, Alves, Carlos, Maicon).  The role of full-back has been redefined in recent years but Cole’s actually quite traditional in his employment.

Where he does deserve enormous credit is his defensive capabilities.  Cole’s level of anticipation in dispossessing strikers is unsurpassed.  He’s world class at double-bluffing a winger into taking a particular path and then pouncing on the ball.  Again and again he will fake interceptions only to retreat to where he has tricked the attacking player into going.  The preconceptions in his movement are almost as disingenuous as some of the compliments people hand out on Facebook photos.

He’s also a great last gasp defender.  Cole might not have notched many times in his career (bedposts notwithstanding) but you can count a great many goal-line clearances to his name.  He has a parkland animal’s ability to sense danger and scurry things into a safe position.  Balanced and never caught on the wrong foot, Cole is able to move with great haste but never in great panic.  If an expensive champagne flute was carelessly glanced off a table edge, the smart money would be on Cole being the one to catch it.

He’s blessed with great health too.  Only once managing less than 30 games in a domestic season over a fourteen year career.  Last year, aged 32, Cole played his most ever – a colossal 51 games in 6 different domestic and European competitions.  It is a testament to Cole’s longevity that he has clocked up over 600 professional games and is still going strong.  He’s a bit like Bruce Forsyth.  Timeless.  Not to everyone’s taste.  But you know what you’re getting and you can’t fault his commitment.

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Cole may never quite have been the best left-back in the world.  But England have had one of the best defenders going for the past decade.  We should celebrate that.  His views on the Football Association don’t make for polite reading, but he’s there at every training camp and every England game putting in consistently fine performances.  Unlike some of the fool’s gold in the golden generation, Cole always plays well on the big occasions.  He’s the one defender who consistently frustrated the greatest player these shores have ever seen, Cristiano Ronaldo.

So well done, Ashley.  Over a hundred England caps.  A European Cup.  A UEFA Cup.  One wounded intern.  Three league titles and more FA Cups than you can shake a stick at.  Here’s to a career that’s been rosier than your ex-wife’s posterior.  The Full-Back’s Union salutes you!

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Ashley was careful to caveat his marital vows.


[1] And I don’t think it will be Leighton Baines taking his place, either.  Luke Shaw looks to be the real deal.  Brazil 2014 will probably come a touch too early for Shaw (and Roy’s boys are doing their level best to balls-up qualification in any case…), but Too Good can easily see him as starting left-back for the European Championship qualifiers thereafter.  

[2] My favourite story of footballing adultery comes from north of the border in a wee town called Glasgow.  Andy Goram’s wife found out about his womanising when she discovered a lady’s footprints on the inside ceiling of the family car.  Such hatchback horseplay certainly didn’t deter Rangers fans from voting Goram as Rangers’ greatest ever goalkeeper, though. 

[3] Cole’s never scored a goal for England in his mightily impressive 100+ cap haul.  In fact, he’s only ever scored 17 career goals.  Barely a goal a season.

New Season

16 Aug

The premier league is back and I, for one, am more excited than a badger at the start of mating season.  Summer distractions are just that.  Wimbledon, the Ashes, royal babies.  Great, but where is Luis Suarez going?  This is what the Great British public really wants to know.  Some things matter.

I’m like a coiled spring at this time of year.  All torque and potential energy; waiting for those sun-kissed opening games.  Soon the clouds will roll in but, for now, glistening green pitches will play host to new names, new kits and fresh hopes.  Bid your loved ones farewell until next May and settle in.

Football fans display an uncanny ability to overlook the obvious at this time of year in favour of a distinctly autumnal optimism.  Too Good has had its dreams of a brighter future dashed too many times before to be drawn in by this false hope.  Some things remain ever present and the sooner into the 2013-2014 season we recognise that Manchester United will win the bloody league again, the sooner we can make peace with our lot.

I’ve canvassed the opinion of several friends who are knowledgeable about football, as well as one or two Liverpool fans, on who they think will take home the spoils this year.  Everyone seems to think it will be either Chelsea or Manchester City.  The experts conclude similarly – not a single member of the Sky Sports panel plumped for the team from Old Trafford on their Season’s Preview show.  Manchester United seem to carry something of a “Germany in major tournaments” feel to them.  We turn up every single time doing our absolute best to rationalise why they won’t win the thing, which of course they then go on and do.  Sometimes the collective footballing consciousness needs to be shaken by the lapels.

Why it won’t be City…

Appropriately for a team hoping for a Second Coming of the premiership title, Manchester City have signed a player called Jesus.  Navas has almost as many tricks up his sleeve as his Nazareth counterpart. But, like Christ himself, Navas also has an Achilles’ Heel.  Christ’s shortcoming was an inability to fend off betrayal within the ranks of his disciples.  Navas’ is his inability to fend off a wobbly lip when he leaves his hometown of Los Palacios.  One hopes that grizzled premiership defenders don’t decide the best way to test the homesick Sevillan’s resolve is a succession of “welcome to the Premiership” tackles.

Pellegrini did his business early in the summer.  Once Navas was prised from his mother’s apron strings, Fernandinho, Stefan Jovetic and Alvaro Negredo quickly followed to the Etihad.  A lot of talent has arrived along with the new manager.  Winning teams typically grow organically, though, rather than be thrown together.  And it’s uncertain what sort of formation will accommodate these players as well as the pre-existing high flyers.  With the exception of Navas, each, it could be argued, has a comparative or better player already in situ at the club (Fernandinho < Toure, Jovetic < Tevez (who will be a massive loss for City on the pitch), Negredo < Aguerro).  It’s not therefore especially clear how City have improved (other than in depth), despite having quality come through the door.  In any case, City fans better hope it gels quickly.  Title races can’t be won before Christmas, but they can certainly be lost.

Why it won’t be Chelsea…

Chelsea have strengthened primarily in the dugout.  The Mourinho Effect is certainly not a chimera, but nor does it tend to work without a hefty war-chest being put to good use.  As Jose himself once opined, in order to buy the best eggs, you need to shop in Waitrose.  While Abramovic’s munificence has surely been guaranteed to Mourinho, so far the cash register has barely rung.  £18m on Andre Schurrle may prove to be a good spend but it wasn’t the focal striker that Chelsea need.  Schurrle operates mainly from the wing or behind another striker.  What Chelsea require is a number 9 that will lead the attack.  Any of Falcao, Cavani, Lewandowski or Higuaín (or even Roberto Soldado, had an astute Daniel Levy not been on hand to whisk him off to the Lane) would have fitted the bill.   As it is, all of the above have signed elsewhere or re-committed to their current paymasters.  If Mourinho honestly thinks Fernando Torres can do the job after three years now in the wilderness, then he’s exhibiting a blind faith that would make Eileen Drewery blush.

Of course, this position all changes if a certain box-shaped Scouser heads down to London.  Wayne Rooney is no stranger to a transplant and, if he were to bed down quickly and effectively at Stamford Bridge, the complexion of Chelsea’s title challenge would change completely.

Which leaves us with…

Al Pacino’s character in Scarface was keen to point out the necessity of a villain of the piece (‘You need people like me so you can point your fingers and say, “That’s the bad guy”.’).  The redemptive quality of the film arrives when seeing the cocaine-fuelled Montana shot to pieces by a team of assassins.  Unfortunately, football isn’t a motion picture and the bad guys rarely get their comeuppance.  The premier league’s Tony Montana, Manchester United, seem to go home with the spoils year after year.  Yet, mysteriously, pundits and fans alike go into overdrive each pre-season trying to contrive reasons as to why it won’t be Manchester United’s year.

To recall, Manchester United won the league by eleven points last season.  By the end of March, they didn’t even need their foot on the pedal.  Putting this into perspective, no team has ever won the premier league by a wider margin and not retained it the following year[1].  In any case, United nab the title pretty much every year.  The red devils have won the premiership on 13 out of 21 occasions, comfortably the highest win percentage (62%) in any of the big European leagues over the same period[2].  You would be hard-pressed to find a dispassionate statistician conclude anything other than a Manchester United success being the most likely outcome.

United have the best striker in the Premiership who is in the form of his life.  They have a supply line to him that is never choked and, at the time of writing, they still have by far the best current English footballer.

Although United haven’t had a decent central midfield for over half a decade now, it doesn’t seem to bother them.  There’s no reason to assume it will suddenly now start to.  Their backline is looking a bit creaky, but then it did last year and United are unlikely to suffer as badly with injuries again.  Vidic has returned and will likely manage more than 19 games this season.  While Rio Ferdinand’s back is more and more resembling a game of Russian Roulette with intervertebral discs these days, there is the blossoming Phil Jones and the reliable Jonny Evans both very capable of picking up the slack.  Rafael is also a fantastic (and wildly underrated) player.

People want to exclaim Alex Ferguson’s retirement as the death knell to United’s dominance.  This may prove to be the case but I can’t see the players forgetting what he taught them overnight.  There might be a certain atrophy over time but I don’t think Ferguson re-invented the wheel each time he went into the dressing room.  He was responsible for putting together great teams at Old Trafford and he’s left one there now.

Things change, sure.  But less so than is often realised.  You’ll get taxed this year.  Christmas will be a bit underwhelming. People will cry on reality television and it’s going to rain on the bank holiday.  Manchester United, I’m afraid, will most likely win the league.


[1] Chelsea won the 2004-2005 title by 12 points and won again the following year with 8 points to spare.  United won the league in 1999-2000 by a colossal 18 points and won the next year by a comparatively modest 10 points.  In short, not only did both teams defend their league titles, they did so handsomely.

[2] Over the same period of time (21 seasons), Bayern Munich have won the Bundesliga 11 times, Barcelona have won La Liga 10 times,  Juventus have won Serie A seven times and Lyon have won Ligue 1 seven times.

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One more sleep, fellas.