Last Wednesday’s performance against Egypt was an important test for England. After an hour and a half, they may have secured a two-goal winning margin, but for large parts of the game they simply were not good enough. Just five months before the start of a World Cup, Fabio Capello will have wanted dominance, what he got was a flat, uninspired and meagre England display.
There were several points of concern from the midweek international, first and not least was the performance of certain individuals.
At the back Capello chose Baines, Upson, Terry and Brown. All players who in their own right, play an important role for their respective clubs Everton, West Ham, Chelsea and Manchester United, yet on Wednesday, none shone brightly. At centre-back, both Terry and Upson started shakily and both didn’t fully get into their stride until midway through the second-half. The Chelsea captain in particular looked clumsy with the ball at his feet and his distribution was not up to his usually high- standard. Thankfully for Capello, the two central defenders are both quality players and one poor match alone will not harm their position in the national squad. They will have better days and they will start the World Cup as two of the top three (possibly four) in their position in the squad.
Unfortunately for Wes Brown, he simply looked out of his depth. Going into Wednesday night most people were wondering what Capello would do in the absence of Ashley Cole, now England fans are left pondering on the right-back position too – what would the gaffer do if Glen Johnson wasn’t fit in time for South Africa? Brown has been playing at centre-back – when he has started – for Man United this season and it showed; his roams into the opposition’s half down the right-hand touchline did not resemble the naturally progressive movements of other, better right backs such as Maicon of Brazil and Sergio Ramos of Spain, more of a man who has forgotten when to go forward and when to not. Defensively Wes Brown may be more consistent than Michah Richards who is Stuart Peace’s first-choice right back for the U-21s, but his movement off the ball when England are in possession is just not up to the international benchmark that a world-class full back has to meet.
Tactically too, there is a problem. Futher forward in the team, in midfield, it is becoming ever-clearer as we move closer to England’s first major tournament in four years, that Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard do not look comfortable together. When Gerrard and Lampard start together in the centre of midfield, they don’t seem to fully click, but when Gerrard starts on the left hand side of midfield and Gareth Barry is added to the middle of the pitch, things look even worse.
It is quite simple yet incredibly frustrating. Steven Gerrard is used to being the lynch pin of the team, the pivot upon which everything depends. The thing about pivots however is that they do not and will not be satisfied staying out on the left wing, letting and waiting-for the ball to come to them – they go to the ball. Naturally the football spends most of its time in the middle of the pitch and Gerrard, the person and player that he is, cannot help but get involved. He strays away from his position on the left hand side of midfield and joins Barry and Lampard in the middle. The problem with this is that England are suddenly left with three central midfielders, when there clearly isn’t enough room and need, for there to be three. Gerrard drops into central midfield, the ball, more often than not, goes to and through him as he is a natural playmaker and in the blink of an eye, Gerrard’s movement and play has completely negated Frank Lampard’s presence in the starting XI. Because of Gerrard’s wanderings, England are left with absolutely no set presence on the left wing which means the team has to operate on a solely narrow basis. On Wednesday, England passed the ball around and were, eventually able to pick-off certain killer passes and beat Egypt through the middle; against teams with better defenders and better defensive midfielders in the World Cup however, England will struggle to break teams down if they rely solely on playing through the middle.
What is most frustrating about the way Capello set England up tactically on Wednesday night, was that Wayne Rooney – who at club level, has been sensational of late – had to drop deep into the spaces in which Gerrard should have been picking the ball up from. Every football fan in the country has watched Rooney of late and thought ‘Phwoar‘, his midweek performance against Egypt conduced words that rhymed with Phwoar, but which went more along the lines of Snore and Bore. Man Utd manager Alex Ferguson has clearly decided this season, that Rooney shall be a striker, the man who leads the line. With Antonio Valencia playing and attacking mainly on the right-hand touchline, Man Utd have been able to stretch their opposition’s defences laterally of late, and with the defence stretched Rooney has had more space to attack the glorious crosses coming in off the right wing with his (increasingly talked-about) head. England want to see the same Wayne Rooney, but seem to think he should be able to produce his club-level goods even by playing – tactically – in a way completely juxtaposed with Man Utd. The problem is that England struggle to give the ball to Rooney in the same attacking positions that Man Utd do, and as long as this is the case, Rooney will not be a regular goalscorer for the national side.
The other major concern raised by last week’s international friendly was over Theo Walcott’s contribution – his touch was way-off. He will always be Olympic-fast, but total, composed control of the football comes only with regular competition and it is clear that he is not getting this at the Emirates. Commentators who say Walcott is not living up to the standards that they expected he would be attaining by now, need to take into consideration that if the winger had of played as many games as somebody like Ashley Young has at club-level this season, he would probably look a lot sharper in an England shirt. If he does not get some serious game time at the Emirates between now and the end of the season, he will surely go to South Africa to be an ‘impact substitute’ and not the starting right winger.
There is, of course, a danger of being overly-critical of the national team, but one gets the impression that England, with some minor tweaking, could be great. They are the national side of a country which possesses some of the very best club sides in the World and at club-level, the individuals which make up the England squad look and are, fantastic. If as England fans, we get a little too-passionate in our support from time to time, it is only because our national team should be brilliant.
It is sad, but the general consensus is that based on a level of performance similar to that which we saw last week against Egypt, England cannot and will not win the World Cup. Fabio Capello cannot, in five months time, set his team up to play as narrow as they did five days ago – England do not have a central midfield to much the creativity of Spain and Italy. What the England team do have though, in Gareth Barry, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, are central players who individually, are as dynamic as you will find. If Capello could just find a way to add menacing skill to both the left and right wings, England could attack and press their oppositions in more than one way, and Wayne Rooney would be able to concentrate on getting into the areas that any great striker should work their way into; at United, Rooney doesn’t have to worry about going and getting the ball because he knows it will be delivered to him on a silver platter and to get the best out of him, England need to do the same. If they do, they will fly. Furthermore, if Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson can get back to match fitness before the plane takes off for South Africa, then England would suddenly become a team no side would want to face. Fact.
By Ross A. Fox