With the crucial Germany match just hours away, Antony Melvin looks into his crystal ball and picks a team.
In the Forties and Fifties it was the strikers that won championships, the team with the best wingers and centre forwards won the trophies. In the seventies and eighties it was the strongest defence that held sway. But modern tournaments are won by holding the middle, so with England facing a crucial game in Germany at the weekend who should the fab four or five be?
In essence the choice should come down to a simple question of 'who are the best four English qualified midfielders'. If only life were as simple as Championship Manager (well cm2 anyway, it started getting very difficult after that). To pick a four/five purely on ability would probably result in an overly attacking midfield, simply because England does not have an outstanding defensive midfielder. To my mind the best midfield combination would be :
Finally, because we're away and in Germany I think a 4-1-3-1-1 formation is a winner and so we need a fifth...
Totally ignoring fitness doubts, this is the squarefootball midfield.
Experienced holding players, once a thriving cottage industry in England now something of a lost art. The candidates are basically Ince, Batty, Butt and Carrick. Past England managers have tried playing defenders or man-markers in this role, Keegan - Southgate, Robson - Fenwick, Taylor - my cousin Vinny (probably). It should be Carrick, great future and probably the best of the three from last years West Ham. Butt simply isn't good enough and Ince has retired. But Batty is a safer option and should be there as a one-off.
Playmakers. Not exactly an English speciality. The choice is between Beckham and ... err, Joe Cole, Steve McManaman? So Beckham it is then.
Your 'complete midfielder', England have not had a box-to-box player since Bryan Robson, David Platt was close but he was much more of an attacking option, Ince was sporadically good - but not consistent. The choice lies between Dyer, Lampard, Barmby, Hargreaves, Gerrard and Cole. Cole is too inexperienced, ditto Lampard and Hargreaves, Barmby is not even a regular at club level these days, but would probably be third choice. Dyer is a potential star but right now Gerrard is the most complete English midfielder.
Ball winner needed, another area of weakness, and for the lack of alternatives this one must go to a tyro: Carrick or Hargreaves. Hargreaves knows the German league and gets the nod on that basis alone.
Goalscorer, link player and partial playmaker. Paul Scholes. The comparisons to Cruyff aren't fair, but Scholes scores goals and makes an additional conventional midfielder at the same time as having a great instinct in the box.
A five for Germany; Batty, Beckham, Gerrard, Hargreaves and Scholes.
The full squarefootball.net XI Martyn, Neville G, Campbell, Ferdinand, Cole, Batty, Beckham, Gerrard, Hargreaves, Scholes and Owen.With the shock transfer of Jaap Stam is this the beginning of the end of the red juggernaught, that so many people have hoped for so long? Or is there another more unlikely scenario being played out here? Is Ferguson gearing himself up to delay his retirement, and is no longer prepared to play a short-term game?
Alex Ferguson has long chopped and changed teams, established stars have been axed and replaced - often with little warning, and the bandwagon has kept on rolling. The reason that Ferguson is planning to retire later is because he has systematically rebuilt his European Cup winning team, apparently for his successors benefit. Buying Barthez, Silvestre, Veron and van Nistelrooy added to the emergence of Brown and Chadwick suggests that this United team has a future. A future with Fergie at the helm.
Ferguson started building his fourth team the moment the European cup was won in 1999, only three of the starting 11 are still automatic choices. Yes just three, and its only 2 years ago. Here was the line-up:
Schmeichel: Gone in 60 seconds.
Neville G: Still a regular.
Stam: Novelist turned Roman.
Johnsen: Usually injured squad player.
Irwin: Final year for the dependable squad player.
Beckham: Was traitorous idiot, now England captain - times change.
Butt: Fifth choice in central midfield.
Giggs: Regular playing the best football of his life.
Blomqvist: Injury plagued and released.
Cole: No longer first choice, but may play his way back into the team.
Yorke: Star of '99 - fifth choice now, would be sold if there were a buyer.
Suspended for the final was Keane, who was and is an automatic choice, and Scholes who wasn't always picked then but is an automatic for club and country now.
The only problem with the 'Ferguson not to retire' theory is that the only real area of weakness is United's defence. Either Ferguson has decided that Stam was a weak link whose removal will provide a catalyst or as is more likely from the quotes in the weekends press, there is a replacement lined up.
Stam's replacement will determine United's place in European soccer for the next few years. If it is Blanc, then good player that he was, United are at the top of the mountain and will start falling. But if it is Cannavaro, Hofland, Ayala or Kuffour then perhaps Ferguson has done it again and will stay on a couple of years to win a second European cup and eclipse his rivals as the greatest ever British manager.