England Vs France: Experimentation Is Key to Progress

COS columnist Tom Victor believes that the England boss is finally realising what friendlies are all about.

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It has taken Fabio Capello two years and 11 months, but he has finally come to understand the point of mid-season friendlies.

Debuts for Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson against France tomorrow, as well as a second cap for Arsenal youngster Kieran Gibbs, demonstrate that such games need not be viewed as ‘pointless.’
Criticism of previous friendly matches has arguably centred as much around the line-ups selected as the actual timing of the fixtures: we already know what the Lampards and Gerrards of this world can (or can’t) do at international level, and fans have bemoaned strong selections filled with players going through the motions before they return to club football at the weekend.

Similarly, there is arguably little use in merely calling up fringe players when the manager has no plan to use them. The concept of ‘international experience’ is a myth when the squad spends so little time together before rejoining their club sides.

Finally Capello has seen sense and not only called up some future stars, but also named them in the starting line-up.

Other countries have used this to their advantage in the past, with Brazil in particular using friendlies to give international experience to their talented youngsters.

Their squad to face Argentina tomorrow contains two teenagers – Neymar and Coutinho – while last year’s friendly against England saw then-boss Dunga hand starts to fringe players Thiago Silva and Michel Bastos, helping them stake their claim for a place in the World Cup squad.

When I talk about giving fringe players their chance in the international set-up, I am not merely talking about the promotion of youngsters from the under-21 set-up.

Capello is by no means the only manager to show a reluctance to call upon late-bloomers seen by fans to be deserving of international recognition, and some will argue the inclusion of Kevin Davies and Jay Bothroyd in recent squads is borne out of an injury list longer than Owen Hargreaves’ medical receipts.

It will be interesting to see whether Bothroyd gets his chance tomorrow, in the light of the so-far-limited England career enjoyed by the likes of Kevin Davies and Scott Parker: even when Capello has bowed to the pressure and brought the in-form duo into his squad, he has appeared more likely to give Stuart Pearce a run-out at left-back than to let either of the two near his starting line-up.

Contrast this with Italy, who will tomorrow hand Alessandro Diamanti his full debut at the age of 27, and Argentina, who gave Ariel Ortega his first cap in seven years against Haiti in May.
Of course, Argentina and Brazil occasionally see their selections affected by a necessity to pick home-based players, but the same cannot be said of Italy.

Nor France, whose head coach Laurent Blanc is likely to give a start tomorrow to one of Loic Remy, Guillaume Hoarau, and Kevin Gameiro. None of the trio has more than five international caps, and 26-year-old Hoarau – a Ligue 2 player just three seasons ago – was nowhere near the national set-up until last year.

Capello has passed the first test, but the real challenge will come if England lose ground on Montenegro after the next round of European Championship qualifiers. With must-win ties to follow, he may wish to use the intervening friendlies to give more game-time to his key men and further marginalise those rewarded for their hard-work in the league with call-ups for games like the one tomorrow.

Such are the situations which may well leave the England boss in a quandary ahead of the Euros (providing we qualify). If some of the bigger names are struggling for form or fitness ahead of the tournament, he needs to be in a position to rely on their understudies to step up to the plate.

He needs to be able to say ‘I can trust Jordan Henderson. He knows what it’s like to put on an England shirt and he’s actually played 90 minutes in international games. He won’t be overawed.’

What he must not do is treat the likes of Henderson and Carroll the way he treated Parker and Adam Johnson ahead of the World Cup. By calling them up for friendlies but using them fleetingly or not at all, Capello second-guessed himself regarding their potential to perform in South Africa.

If Capello does not learn from his previous mistakes, we could well be left with a Euro 2012 squad containing the likes of Shaun Wright-Phillips and Michael Carrick, because they have ‘been there before.’ And no one wants that.

To read more from Tom Victor visit his excellent blog Pele Confidential by CLICKING HERE

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