20 November 2007

England v Croatia 11.21.07 -- Crouch as a lone striker?

Guess at a line-up
Richards Campbell Lescott Bridge
Beckham Gerrard Lampard Joe Cole

I have a bad feeling that after the sense of relief following Israel’s victory, something could go wrong at Wembley tomorrow. Maybe it’s just the pessimist in me, but even though Croatia have already qualified, they will still be a threatening team, and it’s still England we’re talking about.

A draw will suffice. And while we’ve seen England do enough to grind out a 0-0 against every type of opposition, with Croatia’s talent (Da Silva has 10 goals in qualifying, plus Modric and Kranjcar have been known to pop up), England will want a goal to settle the nerves, the sooner the better. Which has gotten slightly more problematic with the injuries and lack of depth up front.

I’m rarely prone to taking shots at Liverpool players, but I can’t help but thinking starting Crouch as a lone striker is going to end badly.

And I like Peter Crouch. He’s an easy target and a frequent magnet for stick, even for Liverpool fans, and a frequent scapegoat for poor performances, rightly or not. I’ll continue to maintain Crouch has a place and purpose in a Liverpool squad that’s meant to be competing for the title.

But Crouch as a lone striker doesn’t always come off as hoped. He can be very effective, the best example being the 4-1 win over Arsenal. But pace and width from the wingers, fullbacks getting forward, and Gerrard in an advanced position with both Alonso and Mascherano covering were utterly essential to success in that game.

Despite his great touch for a big man™ and goal-scoring record for England (13 in 23), Crouch is best at holding up play and bringing the midfield into attack. And while this isn’t a slight on Crouch’s talent, his inclusion can lead any team to shift to route 1 football at the first sign of trouble, something England is too apt to do anyway. And Croatia has a stingy and physical defense in Corluka, Kovac, Simic, and Simunic, although they’ve conceded two more goals than England in qualifying (3 to Macedonia, 3 to Israel).

Which leads me to believe that England’s best chance for success with Crouch up top is with players like Wright-Phillips and Joe Cole on the flanks, and players like Ashley Cole (who, along with Terry, probably shouldn’t feature even if they’ve declared themselves fit, given both haven’t played in over a month) and Richards getting forward from defense. And yet, all the talk is about Beckham possibly seeing a start.

It’s tempting to think Beckham should feature to ping crosses into Crouch, as Golden Balls supplied assists for Crouch against both Estonia and Austria, but Crouch is admittedly not the best with his head despite his height, and England will need to have other goal threats in the box to support. But I have to believe it’s going to be Cole – Lampard – Hargreaves – Gerrard – Beckham, which incidentally is the same midfield that lost to Portugal in the World Cup (as I’m sure you’ve heard).

Admittedly, England has few other options, with Bent, Defoe (both of which have spent the majority of the season on Tottenham’s bench), and Alan Smith the other recognized strikers. And I’d really rather avoid a discussion about the strength and future of the national team, which is a subject that’s been steeped in landmines all week long. But I’m still afraid England will find a way to fail to qualify after being handed second chance after second chance on a silver platter, and what sticks out to me is that I don't know if England have, or will play, players suited to support Crouch in what's going to be a 4-5-1 or 4-1-4-1.

Look, I hope I’m wrong. I’ll happily eat crow if England win, and Crouch and Beckham are essential to it. I’ll be rooting for it to happen. Maybe Gerrard and Lampard will be able to work together with a lone striker, and supply the other attackers that England will need.

But I do worry.

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