'What time you getting back tonight mate?'
In the aftermath of England’s World Cup exit, the Guardian opined that: “The tactics creaked as painfully as the veterans and Fabio Capello's ponderous 4-4-2 would have made players lumber even if they still had a spring in their step”. How easily Kevin McCarra could have been writing about last night. Seven points from nine is not an unmitigated disaster for the English, but such was the despondency this morning that you’d think the team had been insipidly knocked out of a major tournament all over again.
In a way though, garnering only a point from Montenegro is a worse result than a humbling at the hands of a very exciting German team. The main issue is that the performance, in an age where Fabio Capello has given in to the know-it-alls (us included) and handed Joe Hart the number one spot, Adam Johnson a regular starting spot and Jack Wilshere his senior debut, was no better. He has even (though not through his own design) dispensed with the services of Emile Heskey and included Darren Bent. Lampard and Gerrard aren’t playing in the same midfield anymore (though again, this was a decision taken out of necessity). So we got what we asked for, really. But oh no, in the face of organised and obdurate opposition, England still appear to be rather shit. Now what?
Part of the problem seems to be, as the Guardian rightly pointed out THREE MONTHS AGO, a ‘ponderous 4-4-2’, adopted by almost exactly no-one in international football (not even Scotland). A rigid adherence to play up towards A.N. Number 9 to ‘link with’ Wayne Rooney. Not so much as a thought given to putting an extra body in midfield to free England’s most potent attacking threat, their wingers, and absorb the attentions of some of the defensive shield that teams know they can erect against England to keep them out.
A few things can be said about last night. One. Do NOT lump balls up to Peter Crouch, for he is not a target man. In fact, he is so weak from the feet upwards that he is not the man to outmuscle centre backs, nor is he one to attack crosses (not without the help of a defender’s shoulders, anyway). He is basically very bad in the air for a big man. So, sluggish (yes, this is a massive understatement) Gareth Barry and Hollywood Steven Gerrard, STOP looking for Crouch’s chest or head, time and again.
Two. England’s biggest threat comes from players like Adam Johnson, Theo Walcott, Aaron Lennon and arguably Ashley Young, although last night did little to back this up. There is no substitute in the game for raw pace. Full-backs on the back foot = defences going backwards. This, more often than not, can equal goals. Enough was not made of Johnson, who had the beating of his marker. His touch and dribbling add a welcome dimension to England’s play.
Three. Gareth Barry is not the antidote to stodgy, unimaginative build up play. Barry is no Xabi Alonso. He doesn’t dictate tempo like a Xavi or Iniesta. I understand we may be being unnecessarily harsh on the man as he has never claimed to be England’s saviour but last night it was borderline criminal that Barry, whose turning circle is slower than a JCB, and whose first instinct is to pass sideways, was deemed a better option than the genuinely huge talent of Jack Wilshire, especially with Mirko Vucinic not playing. Give Wilshire game time. He is fantastic. He excites the fans. He is young and fearless. He represents a departure, and a very important departure at that. That you can be small, English AND play in the centre at the top level. Wilshire could be our Scholes in a few years and that is exciting.
Oh and four; Wayne Rooney. After much discussion at Magic Spongers, we have decided the only course of action is for Ashley Cole to shag Coleen. Then have England’s Brave and Loyal John Terry shag Becks. And finally, have Rooney shag Terry’s missus. Then the whole sorry saga will have gone full circle and Wazza can get back to his brilliant best.
On the one hand, the first two matches of this qualifying campaign were ideal for England to get the World Cup nightmare out of their systems – two (relatively) sterling performances, seven goals, the ‘most difficult’ hurdle (Switzerland away) in the group negotiated, at least a semblance of pride restored.
On the other (yes, we do like to look at both sides. But don’t get used to it), they came around far too quickly. A ludicrous friendly in the first week of the league season. Three qualifiers gone already. Any change, were we expecting it to be in place already, would have happened overnight. And as we all know, that doesn’t happen. Capello hasn’t had chance to perform an overhaul of any sort, personnel-wise or tactically. The real mystery is if he has any intention of doing so at all.