Euro 2012 qual. - Eurospot: Sturridge snub is nonsensical
Eurosport-Yahoo!'s latest feature is Eurospot: a weekly focus on the build-up to the Euro 2012 finals next summer, profiling the teams, players and managers that will star in Ukraine and Poland, and reflecting on the big news stories around the tournament.
Scenting ageing blood in the water, and an easy headline, the media's reaction to Fabio Capello's squad to face Montenegro was to focus on the omission of the creaking Rio Ferdinand, but surely far more perplexing, and perverse, was the Italian's decision to overlook a singularly excellent young talent in Chelsea’s Daniel Sturridge.
For some unfathomable reason, England will now be deprived of the chance to test out the country's most in-form young attacking talent in Friday's key Euro 2012 qualifier against Montenegro in Podgorica, or at least provide him with valuable experience of travelling with the senior squad. Whichever way you look at it, it is a strange move by the Italian.
After all, ever since Germany’s young tyros exposed England’s failings in South Africa, Capello has shown an admirable willingness to take a plunge in the fountain of youth himself. That much was made clear when, just a month after that World Cup disappointment, he made Jack Wilshere the 10th youngest player to represent England in a move apparently loaded with symbolism.
It is not just the Arsenal midfielder who has benefitted from Capello's determination to embrace youth with a zeal that would impress Silvio Berlusconi: Joe Hart, Adam Johnson and Ashley Young have all played roles of various prominence throughout a Euro 2012 qualifying campaign that will be concluded satisfactorily should a draw be achieved against Montenegro on Friday night. Kyle Walker may make his senior debut.
Moreover, Capello has shown himself to be particularly in thrall to young talents at leading Premier League clubs. Phil Jones won recognition for the first time in August following his move from Blackburn Rovers to Manchester United and, prior to suffering an injury, Tom Cleverley was named in the same squad to face Bulgaria and Wales after an early flourish at Old Trafford following a loan spell with Wigan Athletic last season.
Danny Welbeck and Chris Smalling have also been included in Capello’s vision, which has a surprisingly long-term definition to it given his reign will end at the conclusion of England’s campaign in Poland and Ukraine, assuming they qualify of course.
At the weekend, we learned that Capello was even considering a call-up for Arsenal’s 18-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who appears to be a Euro 2012 contender after one impressive display in a Champions League tie against Olympiacos and a dominant performance in the Carling Cup against Shrewsbury Town.
”I have been impressed with him,” Capello told FATV. “He is a really interesting player. He is a good player, who has a lot quality and is playing at a really high level. He will be a really interesting player for the next friendly games before the Euros, which hopefully will happen for us.”
It almost feels as though Capello is on the brink of going 'full-out Sven' and picking a total outsider for the finals, as Mr Eriksson famously did with Theo Walcott in 2006.
In this context, it makes it all the more astonishing that when naming his squad to face Montenegro at the weekend, Capello studiously ignored the claims of Sturridge - a young English player who has without doubt been excelling for a top club.
After scoring eight goals in 12 games on loan at Bolton last season and then enjoying an excellent pre-season campaign with Chelsea, it was no surprise to see Andre Villas-Boas resist renewed attempts from Owen Coyle to take the forward back on loan. The Portuguese coach has been richly rewarded for that reticence.
Though suspended for the first three games of the season, Sturridge has since started every game for which he has been fit. A tremendous back-heeled goal against Sunderland demonstrated how accomplished he is at the age of 22 while a superb performance against Bolton brought two goals and assists. Coming on Sunday, it was perfectly timed to give Capello an extra push; curiously, the Italian ignored it.
Curiously, because if England do continue the move away from 4-4-2 instigated over the past year or so and continue with the 4-3-3 that was established in the win in Cardiff in March, then who is better placed to occupy the wide role on the right, with Ashley Young on the opposite side of Wayne Rooney, than Sturridge? He is already excelling in that position for his club, linking up across the attack with one of either Didier Drogba or Fernando Torres, and Juan Mata. Such is his form he has helped to displace Florent Malouda, who over the past two seasons has scored 25 goals and claimed 12 assists in the Premier League.
Meanwhile, a generous interpretation of the current level of Theo Walcott - who did make the squad and may start on the right, though Johnson and Stewart Downing have claims too - might see him described as somewhat inconsistent. His England record remains unimpressive: not trusted to go to the World Cup in 2010, that hat-trick in Croatia in 2008 remains very much an anomaly in his international career.
Walcott has even said himself this season that he wants to be playing through the centre in future and appears to have little appetite, or indeed aptitude, for the wide role.
He told Arsenal’s matchday programme ahead of the recent win over Bolton: “I believe I can give so much more to the team playing up front, with the runs I can make off the ball, and I just love hitting the back of the net as well. At times I feel a bit, if not wasted, then in and out of games on the right … I’m not a winger and I think plenty of people know that.”
Walcott’s propensity to run down blind alleys, choose the wrong option when in possession and score at a pretty unimpressive rate mark him out as a player ill-equipped to perform in the position. Contrast his reticence to embrace the role with the glowing praise Villas-Boas has lavished on Sturridge, comparing the young man to Hulk, who scored 36 goals as the manager’s Porto side won the Quadruple last season.
"He offers me a little bit of the characteristics that I had with Hulk when I was at Porto,” said Villas-Boas prior to the win over Bolton. "We have been using Daniel on the right, coming inside. I spoke about it with Daniel in the beginning when I brought him over. Daniel is extremely happy in that position as well.
“I think it favours his natural and technical abilities and his pace, so he's competing for right and left winger positions. I use him on the right so, on his left foot, he likes to come in, likes to decide his next action. The good thing is he creates unpredictability when he goes onto his right foot."
Capello’s decision to omit a player who has so enthralled Chelsea would be more understandable if there was no obvious way to squeeze him into the squad. Instead, it appears as though as many as five players could be competing for the central striker’s role: Rooney, Welbeck, Darren Bent, Andy Carroll and Bobby Zamora. Even if Capello reverted to a front two, an impulse he would do well to ignore, five strikers would be a luxury.
This column will not go down The Sun’s route and ridicule a manager who has such an impressive record in the game for one squad selection – remember the paper’s downright spiteful branding of Capello as a ‘Jackass’ for leaving Jack Wilshere and Andy Carroll out last season? – but the omission of Sturridge does seem somewhat inexplicable.
Less than a year after 28-year-old Championship striker Jay Bothroyd was deemed worthy of international recognition, Capello’s refusal to recognise the most in-form young English attacking talent requires some explanation.