By David de Winter – Sports Editor
I watched England labour to a fairly fortunate draw in Slovenia last night in what, before the match at least, felt like a new beginning for the national side. Captain Wayne Rooney was dropped to the bench after an inauspicious start to the season for both club and country. This was heralded as a watershed moment for England (mostly by the media), ushering in a new era of young, hungry footballers (which always means success, right?). 90 minutes later it felt less revolution, more relief that England had scraped a draw against the 67th best team in the world.
Usually I am loathe to follow most journalists in lambasting the national side, mostly because I know I could do no better. However, against Slovenia, England had no direction, no purpose, no drive. They claim to have assembled the 23 best players in the land, but why, when they pull on the England jersey, do they suddenly freeze and become totally incapable of reproducing their club form? Credit must go to Slovenia who pressed England high up the pitch and gave them little time on the ball. Remember when Roy Hodgson claimed that England would fare much better against teams that played more open football? Codswallop.
There is a singular lack of leadership within the England side. At no point on Tuesday night did any player step-up, demand the ball, and drive into the heart of the Slovenia defence à la Steven Gerrard. Rooney used to be that man but at the moment he is totally devoid of confidence. Despite earning only his second cap, Jese Lingard was the most potent force, drifting inside regularly and finding space in between the opposition midfield and defence, but England’s midfield duo of Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier failed to find him, preferring to pass wide to the full backs where they found little joy all night.
Dropping Rooney was meant to make the most of Dele Alli’s talents, probably England’s most complete midfielder at present. Against Slovenia, Alli made plenty of neat touches – he is very good in possession and has quick feet, but it didn’t really happen for him. There was not enough going on in front of him and on the rare occasions he found himself in promising positions, the attack would peter out.
Which, conveniently, brings me to the enigma that is Daniel Sturridge. Now, as a Liverpool fan, I appreciate Sturridge’s qualities; as Ryan Giggs said on ITV, he has everything: quick feet, pace, good movement, awareness. It’s just that he decision-making is suspect and he showed it again in Slovenia. As I have said many times, England need a forward who is willing to run in behind the opposition defence and down the channels, dragging centre-backs away from the comfort of the 18-yard box, thereby creating space for other player to run in to. Sturridge isn’t that sort of player. He likes to drop deep and receive the ball to feet, which is all well and good but if your centre-forward is 40 yards from goal, and there is little activity ahead of him, he is not a threat. Sturridge is great at flicking, twisting and dinking his way out of tight situations. This should be encouraged – higher up the pitch where he can be more dangerous.
England’s defence (who have now kept three consecutive clean sheets), looked shakier than a jelly in an earthquake and have Joe Hart (England’s man of the match by a mile) to thank for bailing them out on several occasions. Eric Dier and Henderson were in particularly charitable mood, playing the sort of inch-perfect through balls to Slovenia forward Josip Ilicic that were conspicuously absent when England were on the attack. John Stones on the whole looked pretty composed but generally amongst his colleagues there were too many misplaced passes and sloppy clearances. It says a lot about the match that whilst England had the majority of possession, a lot of it was spent exchanging passes between the back four and the two holding midfielders. Possession is only useful if you have it in threatening areas.
I have a theory. England desperately miss Danny Welbeck. I think he is severely underrated by the English public and, whilst he has never been prolific at club level, he has an impressive scoring record for England (14 in 34 appearances). For the national team he normally operates on the right or left of a three-man attack and has the tactical discipline and engine to not only track back but also burst forward when England are on the offensive. He is an intelligent runner and is far superior with the ball at his feet than either Theo Walcott or Raheem Sterling. Without him and the in-form Liverpool forward Adam Lallana England lacked ideas against Slovenia (they only had 3 efforts on target) and rarely threatened Jan Oblak. Danny Rose had England’s best chance but shot wide after turning inside the Slovenian right back.
So were England better with or without Rooney? Statistically not. They dropped their first points in major championship qualifiers for the first time since drawing away to Ukraine in 2013. In my opinion Rooney has been made a scapegoat. Yes his form is in a personal trough, but England’s problems go much deeper than simply their captain. The national team is suffering a crisis of confidence and of identity. The public are disillusioned and the players seem paralysed when representing their country. The lack of leadership on and off the pitch is alarming and the current England team are playing like a group of individuals thrown together rather than a team. I still believe Rooney has a role to play for England – he just needs to find his mojo again. However, the same can be said for the entire England team.