There was a curious moment in England's press conference in San Marino yesterday when Roy Hodgson was asked if he had considered playing Michael Carrick at centre-back to alleviate what has been described in some quarters as a “defensive crisis”.
True, Rio Ferdinand is absent due to his pre-pre-planned extra-special super-duper brand-new super-special training programme, Phil Jones, Michael Dawson, Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill are missing with injuries and Joleon Lescott may be rested to avoid a possible suspension for Tuesday’s trip to Podgorica.
It is an unfortunate turn of events for Hodgson, even if his immediate challenge is merely to fend off the joint worst team in international football. After all, San Marino have won one and drawn four of their 117 international matches (they also drew an unofficial game against Vatican City in 2006 so are apparently unable to beat an ageing German pontiff and a bunch of Swiss guys in funny clothes); they have scored 19 goals and conceded 482; their last competitive goal came in October 2008.
But to describe this as a crisis, or to suggest that Carrick is the only solution to the problem, necessitates accepting the notion that England have a finite number of centre-backs to choose from as they seek to pool their resources for away trips to San Marino and Montenegro.
Of course, in the strictest sense of the word they do: there isn't some mysterious super-lab, probably located near Stoke, spontaneously churning out indentikit defenders, all 6ft 2in with an impressive leap and that singular English ability to chuck their head in the way of the ball. And with passion, too, so much passion.
But in reality England have a sizeable pool to call upon, and international sides cannot claim with a straight face that they are suffering from any kind of selection crisis. The quality of the player decreases with every name crossed off the list, sure, but that list is exhaustive. It’s not like England are Arsenal, with three centre-backs in their squad, or one striker.
As Hodgson pointed out yesterday, he does have four fully functioning defenders at his disposal: Premier League champion Joleon Lescott, soon to be Premier League champion Chris Smalling, the promising Steven Caulker and Newcastle’s Steven Taylor, who can be a decent player when he’s not re-enacting a scene from Platoon.
"We have got four top players here, they are playing at top clubs and have a lot of experience," Hodgson said. "I would be loath to start using playing like Michael Carrick who has been selected for his prowess in central midfield and it would be harsh on the four central defenders who are here."
If Carrick does play at the back then it will be less a reflection on Hodgson’s options than a tactical manoeuvre to hoover up even more possession, as Michael Laudrup did in the League Cup final when asking Ki Sung-yueng to drop into the defence for Swansea City against Bradford City. Anyway, it doesn’t sound like Hodgson’s particularly keen on the idea.
Frankly, to be talking about a “selection crisis” when facing San Marino is borderline insulting. Europe’s third smallest country has a population of only 35,000. Once you factor out kids, women, those over 40 and rugby fans, you’re not left with much of a pool to choose from. According to coach Giampaolo Mazza: “I’ve got no more than about 50 players to call on, perhaps even a few less.”
To accentuate the divide between the two sides, only three of San Marino’s players are professionals. The rest are students, teachers and assorted other workers. A selection crisis in this pocket-sized republic near the Adriatic coast means choosing between an accountant and a bar owner.
As such, short of scoring 10 goals, England can't really win tonight. A narrow victory is hugely embarrassing; a gaping margin of victory merely expected. Hodgson, ever the statesman – a man beloved in certain corners of Europe thanks to his varied and colourful career – maintained diplomatic protocol by talking up the opposition.
"I think everyone understands it is not quite as easy as turning a tap on and saying you are much better than the opponents, that you are going to score a lot of goals," Hodgson said. "Look at the FA Cup and teams in Division Two taking Premier League teams to replays let alone not conceding a hatful of goals. I think the players will be very focused."
Hodgson’s refusal to admit the obvious - that unless Monte Titano, which towers over San Marino like Peter Crouch over Shaun Wright-Phillips, crumbles to the ground and buries the Stadio Olimpico whole, England will surely win - provoked titters in some quarters. But he could hardly say anything else.
Meanwhile, much of the rest of the press conference was dominated by a player who isn't even in the squad, with repeated questions continuing regarding Ferdinand's absence. Suffice to say, this subject has become rather boring. Most of us are probably becoming as fed-up with discussing it as Hodgson, with his hang-dog look in his press conference yesterday, and the Football Association press officer who intervened to prevent a renewed line of questioning.
In truth, when Sky Sports News have on a spinal expert to discuss the impact a 15-hour round trip to Qatar to undertake punditry duties might have on the defender, complete with plastic props, you know things have gone a bit far.
But that’s England’s defensive crisis for you.
- - -
QUOTE OF THE DAY: "That red card was heavily unjustified. It was not even a yellow card or a free-kick. Nani couldn't do anything about it, he hardly touched Arbeloa. The worst thing is that UEFA supports him. That's cowardly, because I really don't understand it. Why don't they just be honest and say: 'He hasn't seen it'? I didn't understand before the game that this man would be the referee, such an unknown referee who hasn't been in charge of a big games for months. Even the guys from Madrid told me afterwards that it was not a red card." - Robin van Persie gets his retaliation in late as he discusses THAT red card.
FOREIGN VIEW: “The big problem with racism is that there is no clear vaccine for it. There are no antibiotics, it is like a virus, dangerous and contagious, reinforced by our indifference and inaction. We must act every time we are confronted with it. Racism is very real and it exists here today.” - Kevin-Prince Boateng speaks eloquently to a meeting of the UN’s commission on human rights.
COMING UP: It's the big one. Well, sort of. England take on San Marino at 8pm and we also have live text commentary on the World Cup qualifiers between Northern Ireland and Russia (7:45pm), Sweden and Republic of Ireland (7:45pm) and Scotland v Wales (8pm). You can also follow all the scores across Europe with our dedicated live page.