On Saturday, England begin what their fans believe will be a successful World Cup. By successful, they mean that England can, should and will win. When the groups were drawn last December, there was a feeling on this side of the Atlantic that England will coast this group and it will be the perfect springboard to overall success.
Algeria and Slovenia were instantly dismissed as threats and the USA were not seen to be a danger, at best, some commentators here said, they might give England a tough game but will still lose. Now the general consensus is that England will still win, but there is the remote possibility of the US getting a draw.
Well, I think that’s wrong. Not only are the USA capable of getting a draw, they have more than a good chance of getting the win; what’s more, I don’t think they will lose to England. If you look up and down the two squads, England do have the better players, although the disparity is not as large as people here in England think, but that alone is not enough to secure an English win.
The simple fact in football is that skill alone is not enough to win matches. There are countless examples of where a talented team packed with some of the world’s best players has lost to a team that isn’t as good but has shown greater determination and desire and has been better organised. Look how Greece managed to win EURO 2004.
England expect to win this group and easily, and they probably will end up as group winners. However, this game will probably come down to who wants it more, and that’s not England. That doesn’t mean that England will be taking the US lightly and won’t be playing to win, it’s just that this game means more to the US than it does to England.
England will approach this game just as the opening game of a tournament. They’ll want to win of course, but the players will be conscious of not putting in too much effort so as to stay fresh for the later rounds and potentially picking up an injury. The US will play this as though it is the final. The team knows that beating England will send the message to the world that they should legitimately be considered as one of the top teams, that their FIFA ranking is not just a product of beating sub-standard opposition. That the win over Spain was not a one-in-a-million result, but what the team can achieve on a regular basis. The US getting anything from this game will be seen as a good result but for England, anything short of a win will be a disaster.
Also, England are slow starters in tournaments. They have only won 5 of the 12 opening matches they have been in and two of those were against Tunisia and Paraguay. They never play their best football at the start of a tournament and the US could catch them cold.
I’m not going to pretend that I’ve seen enough of the US team to say much about them with great certainty, so I’ll defer to your superior knowledge, but from what I have seen, it looks like they raise their game when they play the top teams. On the other hand, England never seems to be able to raise their game a notch or two when the situation demands it.
There has been a lot of talk about America’s need to try and get into Wayne Rooney’s head and exploit his short fuse and either knock him off his game or get him sent off. I don’t think that will happen. I don’t think they need to do it.
Where I think the road to success lies for the USA is to turn one of England’s strengths, namely their attacking full-backs, into a weakness by hitting them on the counter-attack. Landon Donovan should be able to get himself into the space that Ashley Cole leaves when he charges up the line and should be able to create something from it and Clint Dempsey can exploit Glen Johnson’s occasional uncertainty at the back.
Something else that the US must do is try and keep the ball on the floor and run at the England defenders. I’ve never thought John Terry is as good for England when Rio Ferdinand is absent, as he will be this World Cup and with no Gareth Barry, there isn’t a natural holding midfielder in what will probably be the starting midfield for England, which should help when going forwards.
In my opinion, the main England threat will come from Aaron Lennon on the right. He has electrifying pace, is a goal threat and has improved his biggest weakness, his crossing. I’m not sure that whoever gets the start at left-back for the USA, be it Bocanegra or Bornstein, has what it takes to effectively stop Lennon either running at goal or getting behind them to cross. I think the US will have to hope that Lennon, who missed a lot of games with a groin problem, is not either 100% fit, or has an off day. There have been some conflicting reports however, over who will actually get the start on the right and if it is Shaun Wright-Phillips rather than Lennon, that will be a big boost to the US as he is not as good a player and not nearly as much of a threat.
The big worry from a US point of view is that they are light up front. Charlie Davies is a big miss as his movement would have really troubled the England defence and there really isn’t consistent goals threat that Terry and Co. will be having a sleepless night over. However, remember that England have only kept one clean sheet in their last 9 matches, despite Fabio Capello’s reputation as a defensive mastermind, so goals are more than possible.
All-in-all this is going to be a very interesting game. If the US are still level with England heading into the last 20 minutes of the game, England will start to get tight and unravel a bit, as in the back of their minds they’ll see the media knives beginning to sharpen back home. That is the time when the US can impose themselves and stand a good chance of coming away with a win.