New look England or another false dawn?

By David de Winter, Sports Editor @Sport_TLE @davidjdewinter

Two games, two wins. You can’t ask for much more after the debacle that was the World Cup in Brazil. Except you can if you are the English media.

An admittedly drab 1-0 victory against a limited Norway side had sections of the press questioning manager Roy Hodgson’s position. Has he taken England as far as he can? Is he out of his depth at the top level? What about someone younger? Hodgson’s foul-mouthed tirade at the post-match press conference didn’t exactly help proceedings.

Those berks calling for Hodgson’s head had their come-uppance five days later as England swept aside a surprisingly subdued Switzerland in an accomplished performance in Basel. Although they hardly pulled up any tress, England showed a refreshing ability to close-out a match in relative comfort, and they always looked dangerous on the break with Danny Welbeck and Raheem Sterling.

Let’s look at the positives; two clean sheets in a row is no mean feat. The senior stalwarts Joe Hart and Gary Cahill showed their experience and class to organise the defence and neutralise the Swiss (pun intended). Following the retirements of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, Fabian Delph slotted seamlessly into the England midfield, one or two rash challenges aside. He had great energy, used the ball resourcefully and was unlucky to have a penalty shout turned down. In attack, Sterling, Welbeck and Rooney combined neatly for the new Arsenal signing’s opening goal and they generally buzzed around busily, stretching the sometimes flat-footed Swiss defence.

Now for the negatives; to muster only two shots on target (one being the winning penalty) at home against Norway is not an impressive statistic. As they showed in the World Cup, England struggle to penetrate a defence which gets numbers behind the ball. They are much more effective on the counter-attack (witness Sturridge’s World Cup goal against Italy, and Welbeck’s double in Basel). Despite keeping a clean sheet, Manchester United’s Phil Jones looked like an accident waiting to happen against the Swiss, constantly giving the ball away in dangerous areas and getting caught out of position with alarming regularity. Joe Hart saved his bacon a couple of times but other more clinical teams may not be so generous.

There is a school of thought, and I subscribe to it, that England may be better off without Gerrard and Lampard. Don’t get me wrong, they are great players in their own right, they just don’t necessarily get the most out of the talents at England’s disposal. Gerrard’s newfound quarter-back role à la Andrea Pirlo has worked a treat for his club, but for England he had an annoying propensity to hit the Hollywood pass which would often end up nearer the Los Angeles suburb than the intended target.

Gerrard and Lampard were big personalities on the field and I think this might have adversely affected the team. Because of their elevated status as experienced veterans, there seemed to be an effort to almost deliberately direct play though them. As captain and leader, Gerrard often took it upon himself to stand up and be counted which was admirable, but whether it was good for the team is debateable. At the World Cup he would start nearly all England’s moves which resulted in a rather predictable and undynamic approach. With younger legs in the centre of the park offering something different the England team may be better off. They will obviously miss Gerrard’s passing, leadership and drive – every team would – yet the vibrant attacking fluency of Sterling, Welbeck, Sturridge, Barkley et al. are showing signs of thriving in the ex-captain’s absence.

So what of the future? In goal, Joe Hart is still England’s clear first choice No.1 but Fraser Forster’s move to Southampton adds an element of competition for the goalkeeper’s jersey. Glen Johnson’s days as an international right-back look numbered. When fit, one would expect Kyle Walker to slot in with Liverpool’s Jon Flanagan, Southampton’s Nathaniel Clyne and possibly a rejuvenated Micah Richards waiting in the wings.

For me, the big problem is at centre back. England may not have conceded in the past 270 minutes of international football but that disguises a multitude of sins. Finding a defensive partner for Gary Cahill is a priority. Manchester United pair Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have never convinced at international level, and Phil Jagielka’s lack of pace was ruthlessly exposed in Brazil over the summer. The long-term solution is John Stones of Everton but he is yet to complete a full season of Premier League football and is too inexperienced to play in the centre for the national team, Calum Chambers likewise. Oh for the days when quality English centre-halves used to be two-a-penny.

Going forward England look pretty tidy. A team with the attacking talents of Sterling, Rooney, Sturridge, Welbeck, Walcott (when fit) and Oxlade-Chamberlain are a force to be reckoned with on paper. They simply need to spend playing time together to understand the idiosyncrasies of each other’s games. A clinical edge to England’s play would not go amiss either. They are far too profligate in front of goal and the killer final pass goes astray with painful regularity. Still, plenty of reasons to be cheerful.

In the centre of the park England need to make best use of Jack Wilshere’s talents. Since bursting on the scene four years ago his progress has stalled somewhat partly due to injury but more to a downturn in form. Yes he still gives possession away a frustrating amount for a man of his ability but he is England’s most best midfielder with the ball at his feet. His perfect foil is the country’s most underrated footballer, the industrious yet highly capable Jordan Henderson. People (I included) snorted with derision when Liverpool shelled out £16 million for him in 2011 but now that figure seems an absolute snip. Add Ross Barkley (when fit) to that midfield with Fabian Delph on the bench and the future suddenly looks none too shabby.

This England team needs the opportunity to develop. The perceived negativity towards the national side, especially from journalists is staggering. They foist wholly unrealistic expectations on the country’s finest footballers and when they inevitably fail, the media is far too quick to search out a scapegoat. Newflash: England aren’t a great football nation. They are good, but that is all they are and all they ever will be for the foreseeable future. England haven’t been a great side for generations, probably since the 1970 World Cup. Back then they had genuine world-class players in Gordon Banks, Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton. There have been glimpses of greatness; a Gazza and Lineker-inspired run to the 1990 World Cup semi-finals and another Gazza-inspired semi-final exit at Euro 96 but other than that England have done very little of note on the international stage.

Part of the problem is this: because historically England brought the game to the world and England has the self-proclaimed ‘best league in the world’ (it doesn’t), it thinks it has the divine right to be the best national team. Since 1970, how many players have England produced that, in their era and position, could legitimately be considered as amongst the best in the world? This is very much open to debate, but I would go for; Kevin Keegan (European footballer of the year 1978 & 79), Paul Gascoigne (admittedly intermittently) and Ashley Cole. Three in almost 45 years. That is not the mark of a footballing superpower. As soon as the press and the English public realise this, they can get off Roy Hodgson’s back and let the England team do what they do best: playing football and hopefully winning matches.

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