[USA-ENGLAND COUNTDOWN] Once again, a vital member of England’s national team has gone down with an injury on the eve of the World Cup, prompting English pundits and fans to wail in anguish.
Veteran defender Rio Ferdinand, one of very few pro athletes to have flunked a drug test by missing it altogether through forgetfulness, suffered a knee injury last week in training and won’t play in the competition. Though prone to “switching off” (British parlance for “spacing out”) at critical moments, the Manchester United star is one of the few tough, elegant defenders to grace England’s team in the past few decades.
Metatarsal injuries to David Beckham (2002) and Wayne Rooney (2006) affected their performances in those World Cup competitions, but losing Ferdinand entirely is a test of the squad and Coach Fabio Capello. His replacement choices include oft-injured Tottenham veteran Ledley King. The presence of King alongside with John Terry would put the English in much the same situation as the USA, i.e., that of a central defender plagued by fitness worries.
King, who suffered a foot injury shortly before the 2006 competition, twice sat out six-week intervals of the Premier League season with knee problems. Oguchi Onyewu’s recovery-in-progress from a ruptured patellar tendon is one of several fitness issues of concern to U.S. head coach Bob Bradley.
Capello’s other choices are Jamie Carragher and Matt Upson, who played four qualifiers when Carragher and King weren’t available. None have Ferdinand’s agility and quickness; on the other hand, they are less prone to lapses in concentration. King, Spurs’ captain and a one-club player (since 1999), is a reliable defender with good pace, but Ferdinand’s experience of playing in the last three World Cups can't be undervalued.
One countermove to the loss of Ferdinand would be a tightening of central midfield, but here, too Capello’s options are limited. Another injury absentee is Gareth Barry, and without his tackling and tenacity to hold the center, Capello is faced with using Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard together in the middle with the holding and attacking duties to be shared. Or he could use a player like James Miler in a holding role and shift either Lampard or Gerrard out wide.
Writing in the Guardian, English journalist Paul Hayward said, “Another snag is that it shines a light again on the Frank Lampard-Steven Gerrard central midfield double act, and which of them should be burdened with the greater defensive responsibility. That debate still awaits its resolution.” (Ironically, King got some time as a holding mid for England before the last World Cup under former coach Sven-Goran Eriksson.)
If Capello pairs Lampard and Gerrard in the center, this could offer Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey opportunities to veer inside from the flank to find pockets of space between the English midfield and back line. There would also be space on the flanks for teammates, either the outside backs or even Michael Bradley, who doesn’t leave the central channel very often but has shown he can deliver a cross from wide positions. On the other hand, tracking and containing both Gerrard and Lampard would severely test the American center mids and limit their offensive input.
And how does U.S. forward Jozy Altidore fit into all this? After sitting out the final warm-up match against Australia Saturday, Altidore returned to full training on Tuesday. His size and heft are unique among the U.S. attackers, and it’s assumed that Bradley will start him against England.
Yet it’s painfully easy, pun intended, for defenders to jab and kick a forward’s tender ankle, so unless Altidore is as close as can be to 100 percent, a forward pairing of Edson Buddle and Robbie Findley is still a possibility. They are all World Cup rookies, as is Herculez Gomez, so there’s no advantage in that department. Only Altidore played in the Confederations Cup.
Capello still has to resolve, at least publicly, his issues of who to pair up with Rooney and which goalkeeper to play, but the certainty regarding Barry and Ferdinand simplifies his game plan. Bradley must decide if he can trust Altidore’s ankle and Onyewu’s knee sufficiently to start them against a very good team.