Monday, 6 September 2010

Little acorns and all that........

A 4-0 qualification win for England and you would expect to have a warm glow from enjoying a comfortable win. Yet, whilst the England result against Bulgaria was more than satisfactory and there were some promising signs, there were other areas that were less so. Following on from the disappointment of the World Cup it was good to see everyone's expectations reigned in. Well maybe everyone except ITV, who you couldn't help feeling were only pretending to be ironic when displaying the odds for England reaching the final in 2012. Hopefully the country as a whole will remain level-headed for tomorrow night, because I think we will need to be.

The build-up to the Bulgaria game was one of the most negative for any recent international match. The grim realisation of England's place in world football at the World Cup and a ponderous 2-1 win over Hungary in a friendly left supporters pretty low. A squad announcement that contained few of the hoped for changes from the old guard did little to raise hopes. No Rodwell, no Wilshere, no Huddlestone, all in reasonable early season form, and this despite the absence of Terry and Lampard.

With expectations of a change of formation, the early team news pointing to a continued use of the much pilloried 4-4-2. The tactical stubbornness of Capello seemed to rile fans and media alike. But the fact is that 4-4-2 can be effective with the right players playing in their correct positions. It requires fluidity and movement from players and more importantly pace, particularly in wide areas. All facets of play that England failed to display in South Africa, when 4-4-2 appeared to mean restriction and rigidity.

So with a feeling that there will still plenty of people not behind them and some players with little international experience, it was vital that England made a strong start. Yet the early goal failed to settle the players and an edgy crowd. A Bulgarian side without it's most potent striker, in the retired Berbatov, started to pose England problems and gained in confidence as the half drew on.

Interestingly, with all the focus on the inexperienced centre back pairing, it was the full backs who left England badly exposed. Luckily, in the absence of Berbatov, Bulgaria certainly lacked potency up front and the fact is that their best chance was nearly put away by Glen Johnson, rather than one of their own. In the formation, the full backs do need to press on to support the wingers, as exemplified by Cole's involvement  in the first England goal, yet there is a responsibility to get back in position ready to defend and this is where England's full backs, Glen Johnson in particular, struggle. For a defender seemingly worth £17m, you would expect them to be able to do the basics right. Improvement is needed and this will have to take place on the international stage as there is little competition for his place at right back. 

To be fair, the Jagielka-Dawson partnership performed reasonably well and I think it was right that this pairing started and that Cahill was subsequently brought off the bench as Dawson's replacement. As important as experience is we need to start looking forward and give these players a chance. Yes their play was far from perfect, but neither did they get the support or protection you would expect from colleagues around them. Yes they are inexperienced, but how do they gain experience if they don't play? It seems from recent reports that Capello thought Joe Hart to be his best goalkeeper in South Africa, but was reluctant to play him due to his lack of big game/tournament exposure. If they are good enough, they should play. Why play a player of lesser quality/capability just because they have played in the past and a bit more experience?

Joe Hart showed his true class and why he should hold on to the goalkeeping jersey for a very long time. Assured in the basics and capable of a couple of key saves, particularly the one prior to England's second goal, he showed a level of maturity and concentration that some of England's more experienced keepers have failed to display in recent years.

The midfield was a mixed bag, at times creative and at others frustrating. Both Walcott and Milner need to offer more consistency from wide positions. Gerrard, where he should be, in the middle was effective at both ends of the pitch and shows that you should select the best players for each position and not just your best eleven players full stop. With the need for a defensive midfielder, which appears to be the leaden footed Barry, it will be interesting to see what happens when Lampard is back available. I really fear that Capello will squeeze the life out of Gerrard and an effective use of 4-4-2 by shoe-horning Lampard back in and forcing Gerrard out wide.

England's second goal in particular was great to watch, from Barry picking up the ball following Hart's save, to the finish by Defoe, England swept up field with speed and concise passing. To see England counter attack at such pace was pleasing, given the last time we had seen such play was when Germany tore us apart in the World Cup.

The role of Rooney, playing in a more free role just behind Defoe, was vital to the win. He contributed to all 4 goals and was involved all over the pitch, looking to collect the ball from much deeper. The key difference from his World Cup performances was that this was Rooney the team player, often starting an attack, passing to a team mate and moving into space nearer the opposition goal. Often in South Africa, Rooney was seemingly trying too hard, head down, with little awareness of his colleagues and play would often break down whilst in his possession. It was great to see Rooney and Defoe, who many commentators said could not play together, link up so well. Defoe's hat trick was deserved and when he receives the ball in those kind of positions you feel confident that he will, as a minimum, work the keeper or score.

After the weekend revelations in the News of the World, the worry has to be whether we will see the same Rooney in Basel. For England to succeed we have to hope we see more of the same from Rooney and continued improvement from the team as a whole. 

Switzerland (World ranked 17th by FIFA - for what that is worth) are a stodgy side who nullify the opposition, yet are capable of hitting teams effectively on the break. 8 of their previous 12 international matches have resulted in a scoreline containing no more than one goal. That includes the best smash and grab seen at the World Cup, where they beat a dominant Spain 1-0. Whereas Bulgaria are a team on wane, Switzerland have been consistently in the upper echelons of the rankings for the last couple of years, largely based on the ability to generate results, if not entertaining performances.

England should prepare for a difficult night tomorrow night. Patience will be required, from both players and fans alike. Rooney will need to be a team player again and you cannot help feeling that the onus will be firmly on him to provide the incisive play and creativity required. A draw should be considered a good result, but with an element of negativity towards team and manager from the World Cup hangover, have the media and fans the willingness to accept it?  

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