England recorded a comfortable 4-0 against Bulgaria last Friday in what ended up being a good opening qualifying game and exactly the sort of response England needed after the calamity that was the World Cup.
When the team was announced I thought they’d line up in a standard 4-4-2 as Capello gave his critics two fingers and showing that he’s still in charge and within 3 minutes England took the lead after a beautiful through ball from Rooney to Cole on the left hand side of the box Cole cut in and, 2nd time round, got a cross from just outside the 6 yard box to Defoe who volleyed home and set Wembley rocking. The first half was a display from England of what they can do but the Bulgarians were especially poor, they had no natural shape when England had the ball and there were frequently huge gaps between the defence, midfield and attack which the England players found themselves knocking the ball around in big spaces with no one really pressing them or rushing them. The gaps left Wayne Rooney lots of space to help him come deep to get the ball when he needed to and it gave him time to run at the Bulgarians or give him time to pick out a pass but the main thing was he was given time and he started to look dangerous again for England.
As the first half wore on it became clear that England were playing a mix of 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1, Milner probably wasn’t forward enough to be called a full on 4-2-3-1 but Rooney was dropping deeper this game, like he was in a controlled free role, and he linked up well with Ashley Cole down the left hand side. The first half wasn’t all England knocking the ball about like Spain though with Bojinov having a great chance but Jagielka managed to catch him before he pulled the trigger and put in an excellent tackle. Glen Johnson also tried his hardest to bring Bulgaria back on level terms, nearly side footing a Bulgarian cross into his own net but Joe Hart was alert to it and managed to save it. England looked more solid at the back, Dawson & Jagielka settled well although Dawson did make a slight slip that let the Bulgarians through but they shot wide, however moments later Dawson’s game ended when he twisted his knee and ankle but fortunately he’s only out for weeks and not months. This gave Gary Cahill a chance to come on and it was good to see a younger, more mobile player being given a chance over the usual players like Matthew Upson who, in my opinion, is lucky to still be anywhere near the England team and Cahill justified his call with a terrific block less than 10 minutes later. On the hour mark England sealed a second and it was reminiscent of the counter attacking football Germany used to devastating effect on England, Joe Hart blocked a powerful shot blasted straight at him and in 14 seconds Rooney had the ball, slipped it through to Defoe who rifled the shot home and sealed the game for England. It was excellent link up play between Rooney & Defoe and showed just why Capello picked these two players, but they weren’t done there and Capello decided to make a change bringing on Johnson for Walcott who failed to hit top gear again for England but still looks a threat with his pace.
Johnson had a chance not long after coming on but a weak shot was saved well however the next time he found himself in the same situation he unleashed another shot and this time the ball found the back of the net for his first England goal, but England weren’t finished yet and Defoe managed to seal his hat-trick after a Rooney run ended with him sliding the ball into Defoe’s feet for a great finish, although he injured himself in the process and was taken off to be replaced by Ashley Young for the last few minutes.
It was a very solid performance from England who managed to keep the ball well, create a fair few chances as well as looking a livelier unit than they have done for a while, although this was a very poor Bulgaria team they were facing. The centre of defence looked a little shaky as you would expect with 3 inexperienced players at this level not having anyone with real experience alongside them but the few times Bulgaria did sneak through Joe Hart looked more than up for the task, at one point putting on his own little juggling show with the ball. It’s great to see an English keeper with so much confidence and belief and getting an established run in a team however I hope the media don’t build him up to silly heights so we can just knock him down, I read an article saying that Peter Shilton established himself around the same time so Hart could break his appearance record, we should just be worrying about him on a game by game basis, a keeper’s confidence can be shattered with 1 mistake and its stupid to be talking about him setting any records yet.
Capello has been criticised for not moving the team on and sticking with the same old names, but with a defence that has a structure of Hart, Jagielka, Dawson & Cahill this is moving on from the usual line up of James, Terry, Rio & Upson even if the 2 centre backs have missed out due to injury but the fact is they aren’t getting any younger, injuries are making them less mobile which is becoming a massive problem for them. Remember Terry’s heroic diving header at the World Cup, the only reason he had to launch himself was because he dived in for a tackle that he got wrong, scuffed the clearance which fell to a Slovakian player and couldn’t recover in time so had to launch himself to try and stop the shot that came in as a result of his mistake. This isn’t heroic defending, this is suicidal last ditch defending that you don’t need at international level least of all during a must win World Cup game. Maybe it’s time to look at younger more mobile defenders as an established pair and not rely so much on our over 30’s defenders who can’t get around as much anymore and I’m sure part of the reason Terry won’t get dropped is because of the fear of reaction from Chelsea fans if there brave hero gets dropped.
Of course there was still the much trickier game to face in Switzerland, the team that beat eventual World Cup winners Spain in the first game of the World Cup. First shock was to hear Lescott playing alongside Jagielka however they did play well together when they were at Everton and Lescott has a bit more experience which Capello clearly felt was needed in this area. Jagielka’s display was assured and confident, he defended well and kept it simple when he had the ball which was good to see and Lescott didn’t make a mistake either also defending well and although it was against a weak attack the confidence boost will do both defenders well.
The first goal was very well constructed, 10 simple passes that unlocked the Swiss defence with a lovely ball down the wing by Walcott for Johnson to run on to who hit an inch perfect cross across the 6 yard box for Rooney to slot home, understandably his celebrations were muted to say the least, leaving England 1-0 up and looking good in the game although it came at a price with Theo Walcott being stretchered off after being injured as he collided with a Swiss player as he was running into the 6 yard area although this meant the early introduction of Adam Johnson in to the game. Just like in the Bulgaria game England waited about an hour to score their 2nd goal, a lovely through ball by Gerrard splitting the Swiss defence and leaving Johnson to run round the oncoming keeper and slot the ball home, although as with the 1st goal this was tainted by a player being stretchered off injured with Defoe leaving via a stretcher and Darren Bent coming on to replace him. Moments later however the Swiss player Xherdan Shaqiri, who was linked with quite a few top clubs over the summer, scoring a lovely 25 yard shot he cut in from the right and was given a little too much space and tucked the ball away in the top left corner with his left foot leaving Hart with no chance. England still had enough time to bring a smile to Capello’s face when they scored a third goal, Cole with a lovely through ball for Bent to smash home with his left foot from about 15 yards leaving the score at 3-1 and England leaving all there doubters and critics disappointed as they took 6 points from 6.
Again England looked comfortable in what was perceived to be there toughest test, away at the team that’s expected to come 2nd in the group, although I think Montenegro away could be a pretty tricky match and there is certainly no room to become complacent and Capello will know this but after such a terrific start to the campaign with 2 comfortable wins he must be wondering to himself if maybe the absence of Lampard & Terry has anything to do with this. Terry especially over the last 12 months or so has not looked like the player he once was, and with Rio’s injury problems there is no guarantee that either of them will be around for the Euro’s, so why not try and build a central defence on younger more mobile players? We all saw Terry’s press conference and whilst you can never doubt his loyalty to the shirt or his fierce pride in playing for England you can doubt if his ability is what it once was and you can certainly doubt if he is a positive influence on the dressing room or behind the scenes.
Frank Lampard is another interesting one, for years all we’ve heard is ‘How do we get Gerrard & Lampard to play together’ and it seems the answer is we don’t. Gerrard again excelled without Lampard alongside him and below are some stat’s from @OptaJoe on how England play when only one of the 2 are playing -
1 - England have lost just one of their 17 competitive games with Gerrard starting without Lampard, winning 13.
Played 9, Won 7, Drawn 1 & Lost 1 in competitive games with just Lampard starting.
7 - S.Gerrard has assisted the most England goals (7) under Fabio Capello, followed by W.Rooney and G.Johnson (5 each).
So it seems both have good records for England when they play just on their own however it also appears that Gerrard is the more productive of the two so far, so the inevitable question is with England playing so well in the last 2 games, as well as looking better in the 2nd half against Hungary when Lampard was taken off, is it time for Lampard to take a role as a ‘squad player’ instead of a ‘nailed on to start’ player?
Lampard had one of his best ever seasons last season for Chelsea and certainly excels for his club but year after year he has failed to turn this into international performances, especially in Germany 2006 & South Africa this year and by the time its Euro 2012 he will be 34 and one important lesson we learnt at the World Cup is that you need to have mobile midfielders that can get up and down the pitch easily which is something that Gerrard does a lot better than Lampard. Gerrard is in possession of the shirt and has a better all round game than Lampard I feel so why disrupt things? Why try and fit Lampard in to the team and move Gerrard around? Surely a better performing Gerrard is better than an underperforming Gerrard/Lampard partnership? Gerrard has put up with being shunted around the midfield to try and accommodate the inflexible Lampard and maybe now it’s time for Gerrard to have an uninterrupted role in the middle alongside a player that doesn’t hold him back. Let’s not forget that part of the reason Paul Scholes retired from England because he was sick of being out on the left whilst Lampard played in the role he preferred so rather than carrying on putting in sub slandered performances he moved aside, Gerrard has stuck at it but we’ve never really seen the best of him for England so maybe now it’s worth a chance in 2012 he’ll be 32 and it will probably be his last chance to put in a good shift in an England shirt.
I’m not saying Lampard should be dropped from the England team completely, he’d certainly be a good player to have around the squad as he always seems to get on with the players and has a lot of experience he could pass on to the younger players but more importantly he would be an excellent ‘Plan B’ if he was needed. I do however think John Terry should be kept away from the England squad until he’s back to his best and he has his ego under control. One thing England has never been short of is good quality centre backs and with people like Phil Jagielka (28), Gary Cahill (24) and Michael Dawson (26) in the squad we seem to have another generation coming through and peaking so to speak at the right time and they are certainly more mobile than Rio & Terry and the perfect time for them to get experience at this level is through playing more games so it might well be time for them to be given a chance as well. This would of course mean no room for Rio and I think after his recent injury problems this will be the right decision, the few games he’s played over the last few seasons he hasn’t looked the same and certainly has lost a bit of pace as a result of these injury’s but I think that like Lampard he should be kept around the squad because of his experience.
The next match against Montenegro should show what Fabio’s mindset is, if Rio, Terry & Lampard are all fit and picked for the next squad and start it will show that either Capello is very stubborn or hasn’t learnt anything and although I think the latter isn’t the case at all I do worry that maybe part of Fabio wants to prove he can get Lampard & Gerrard to play together but I hope I’m wrong.