Wednesday, 13 October 2010
'New' England look frustratingly familiar
First, lets start with the positives. Or rather, positive. There was genuine signs of progress on the wings, with Ashley Young and Adam Johnson catching the eye with their pace, trickery and willingness to commit defenders. The Manchester City wideman was a genuine live wire, providing England's likeliest source of a breakthrough in an otherwise tepid first half. He is the best homegrown player in the country on current form, and it is imperative that he plays every game on the right flank. Villa star Young still has to improve his final ball in an England shirt, but this will come naturally as he grows in confidence and experience. It can also be argued that the threat posed by both men was tempered by repeatedly having to cut inside, but as long as they are supported by overlapping full-backs and have people to link up with in the middle of the pitch, there are no problems.
England's tactical difficulties resulted from the fact that too much of the creative burden was placed on Young and Johnson. Steven Gerrard was the architect of his own poor performance, playing so deep in the midfield that he couldn't influence play in the final third of the field. Instead of moving forward to join up with Rooney and the wingers, the Liverpool captain and his midfield partner Gareth Barry acted as the footballing equivalent of quarterbacks, attempting 30 and 40 yard passes inside the opposition full-backs and into an isolated Peter Crouch.
Everyone knows that England's midfielders have a great passing range, but such a risky pass is unlikely to succeed more than a couple of times in a game. Moreover, by playing so many long passes, Gerrard and co. completely played into the hands of the big Montenegro defence, by eliminating their own technical advantage. It is no coincidence that England's best passages of play occurred in the second half, when Gerrard began charging into the opposition half as the hosts searched for a breakthrough.
Wayne Rooney, as so often recently, was an anonymous and frustrated figure up front. Almost inevitably, given his lack of first-team football with Manchester United of late, England's number 10 looked nowhere near sharp in and around the penalty area. Nor was Rooney's cause helped by Gerrard's deep-lying role in the first half, which forced him to repeatedly come deep in an attempt to influence the game, and led to him attempting a few 'Hollywood' passes himself.
There is no denying that the United frontman is far from his imperious best right now, but this would not be a national crisis were it not for the blunt reality that he is our only top level attacking player. It is impossible to expect Rooney to carry an otherwise unspectacular frontline in every England game, but this is precisely what England's striking situation dictates. When he is below par, our lack of alternatives is highlighted in stark terms.
Undoubtedly the most depressing aspect of last night's performance was the crippling lack of urgency and tempo which undermined whatever there was of England's good work, particularly in the first half. Given that every single member of the squad plays in the most high-tempo league in the world week-in, week-out, the source of the problem is difficult to understand. Top players are also naturally adept at finding space even when it is at a premium, and yet it was a lack of movement from England's Premier League stars which allowed Montenegro's defensive gameplan to work.
And work it certainly did. Aside from a couple of good chances for Rooney, and an early headed chance which Peter Crouch should have made more of, Montenegro were reasonably comfortable. No one can accuse their Croatian manager Zlatko Kranjcar of being over-ambitious with his tactical set-up, but his side showed the defensive discipline worthy of a point, and almost stole a victory with Milan Jovanovic's thunderous half-volley late on. That said, England should certainly have had a penalty for Jovanovic's blatant handball a few minutes earlier, but the strength of the protests from every corner of Wembley highlighted the desperation of the home side.
Fundamentally England were poor. But worse, they exhibited many of the same flaws which undermined any hopes of success in South Africa, in spite of claims by Capello and the FA that the results and performances against Bulgaria and Switzerland had illustrated that progress was being made. The result - a draw at home to Montenegro - is certainly not catastrophic for England's hopes of qualifying for Euro 2012, although it has made a group which previously seemed straightforward now appear potentially awkward. The performance, however, has given no credence to the belief that the national team can achieve anything significant once they get there. It seems that we are as far as ever from troubling the world's best.