England’s 0-0 draw in Ukraine on Tuesday night has engendered contrasting emotions. Those of an optimistic, or even pragmatic bent, are saluting a battling point which keeps World Cup qualification hopes in the team’s hands.
Alternatively, barely a week on from Greg Dyke’s state of the football nation address being centred on the ever declining pool of young talent available to our national side, the performance in Kiev is held up as Exhibit A in support of the new F.A. Chairman’s concerns.
A balanced outlook would be to accept that an element of truth can be found in either interpretation.
The inability of the England team to retain possession has been a cause for lament since Glenn Hoddle’s short-lived spell at the helm concluded in 1999. Since the dreadful, Kevin Keegan led, European Championship campaign in 2000, when the inferior technique of our best footballers was visibly exposed by classy Romanian and Portuguese outfits, the number of England’s coherent and fluid displays against reputable opposition can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Croatia, both in Zagreb and at Wembley, under Fabio Capello during the qualifying phase for the 2010 World Cup, periods of this year’s home and away friendlies against Brazil. Already, by utilising the latter pair of matches as an example of better days, straws are being clutched.
And there it was again in Kiev. After an early Theo Walcott dart into the box, the Arsenal player breaking onto an intelligent pass by Rickie Lambert, England, in possession, became progressively more sterile.
Jack Wilshere was routinely caught holding onto the ball for seconds too long, while he waited vainly for a colleague to make a positive movement. When the country’s bright young hope was replaced by Ashley Young, Roy Hodgson made the curious decision to push James Milner – assiduous all night, but the epitome of his team’s lax passing – into the Wilshere sized hole behind Lambert.
Frank Lampard, hitherto largely constrained by his defensive duties, could have been freed to spend 25 minutes roaming in the territory where his instinct for goal and speed of thought can prove so devastating.
That Hodgson declined to make such an offensive alteration was, perhaps, understandable. As an eventual stalemate, which suited his side far more than it did their hosts, drew temptingly into sight, the prospect of risking a potentially qualification securing point became increasingly unpalatable.
It is for the same reason, that Lambert began the game as a lone forward who was working with modest support, to a man completely isolated, typically receiving the ball at an awkward angle with his closest team-mate 20-yards in the distance.
Steven Gerrard saw out the final throes of the action from a berth so deep that he had become an auxiliary third central-defender.
This, then, was not an apt occasion on which to make caustic observations about the traditional flaws to which we have become accustomed when watching England. Nor, indeed, is it the time to bemoan the fact that many of the men responsible for such common failings, shine on a weekly basis for clubs which operate in the highest environs of domestic and continental football.
If England surrender the ball so readily in Brazil as was the case in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium, the thousands of supporters who will travel to watch their country in South America would be advised to pack light.
Of course, that previous statement assumes that the point which was ultimately secured in the Ukranian capital’s 70,000 capacity arena will prove sufficient towards the primary aim – that of finishing top of the six nations in Group H.
If the assumption prevails, Hodgson’s team will owe a huge deal of gratitude to Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka. Ahead of the game, this defensive pairing was, in many quarters, held up as the chief source of worry in England’s line-up. Any perceived weakness in the duo is only intensified by their esteemed immediate predecessors, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand.
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