Four goals, an in-form Wayne Rooney and finally a top class goalkeeper between the sticks - England’s victory against Bulgaria was enough to give even the most downhearted fans reason to be optimistic following their now infamous dismal World Cup performance.
Fans must still err on the side of caution though, as truthfully, the resounding win over Bulgaria should come as no surprise. Despite Fabio Capello being unable to adapt or cope with tournament football this summer, he did prove himself quite capable of moulding a side capable of breezing through qualifying.
England have been drawn in a marginally easier group to that from which they emerged from so comfortably last time, so there is no reason why the same should not happen again.
Tuesday’s match against Switzerland in Basel will be the toughest of the campaign, but even with a patched up defence England should emerge unscathed. If they play anywhere near their potential, they should come away with at least a respectable point.
Having experimented with a 4-3-3 formation for the friendly against Hungary, Capello reverted back to his trusted 4-4-2 for the serious business of qualification against Bulgaria. In all likelihood, he will do so again versus Switzerland.
That means Wayne Rooney will once more occupy his familiar national team role of playing just off the front man, a position he so excelled on Friday. He benefitted greatly because Bulgaria naively matched England’s system, so consequently he was able to exploit the space in between defence and midfield to devastating effect.
In midfield, Steven Gerrard was unsurprisingly influential centrally while Gareth Barry, given ample time on the ball previously prohibited in South Africa, looked the complete holding player, dutifully recycling possession and filling in for his full-backs when necessary.
Maybe Capello is right after all. Perhaps the traditional 4-4-2 is not the out-of-date formation seemingly all fans, journalists and housewives believe it to be. Perhaps England’s failure was simply a case of good players not performing. Certainly, whenever the Italian was questioned about his choice of system, he would always point to the formidable qualification campaign as proof it worked.
If only it was that simple.
Fans should have no qualms about England lining up 4-4-2 against inferior opposition, either at home or away, for it would be deeply concerning if England were forced to flood the midfield in an effort to combat the threat of Montenegro at Wembley. Ultimately, England’s better players will come out on top more often than not.
However, against the very best sides, it is essential England have that extra man in midfield, someone to take the pressure off the cumbersome yet overworked Barry to help get a foothold in the game. No amount of forthcoming impressive qualification results will alter that.
The upcoming friendly against France at Wembley in November, and the likely fixture against Argentina in Copenhagen next February are perfect opportunities for Capello to prove he has learnt from his mistakes. Only then can we forget and move on.
Flexibility and change may not come easy for the conservative 64-year-old Italian, but it is something he must do if he wants to prove he is a capable international manager and right the wrongs of South Africa. If he does, England can excel at the European Championships in two years time, no question.
But should another successful qualifying campaign lures Capello into a false sense of security, the nation may as well start preparing themselves for yet another quarter-final exit and 46 years of hurt.
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