Admittedly only a friendly, but nevertheless one of those jamborees to have you climbing a rooftop and ringing a bally great big bell. A performance and comeback with an almighty amount of biff, and against no lesser opponents than the world champions, this felt like one to get the rowdier members of the parish council standing up and paying heed.
1. Tottenham Core
During an international break it takes a particular breed of toothsome fruitiness to stir AANP from the wine cellar, but the more eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that the quill has indeed been applied to parchment. At the nub of the thing is a sentiment that cannot have escaped every beady eye – namely that the best England performance in a month of Sundays was founded upon a core of players that had a distinct lilywhite gloss to them.
The high pressing, high-tempo approach to life, which just about throttled the life out of the Germans, will have looked mighty familiar to anyone who has pootled along the roads of N17 in recent months. This, oddly enough, was an England team playing the image of Tottenham. Every time they lost the ball they swarmed as one to win it back, looking every inch like a team of excitable beasts let off the leash, and having served Spurs to the point of a Title-pop this season, the same recipe dashed well appeared to put the World Cup winners to the sword.
As if to add a pinch of subtlety to the comparison, this England team was fashioned from a backbone of Dier, Alli and Kane, who pretty much set the standard for things by putting into effect a meaty combo of ball-winning, harassment and some gloriously slick interplay. This Spurs core, right down the centre of the pitch, set the tone, and while it struck me that Henderson, Lallana, Welbeck and chums were not quite charging their glasses with quite the same gusto, they certainly got the gist of things.
2. Back Four (And In Particular The Centre-Backs)
So when piling forwards our heroes certainly seemed braced for matters, cane in hand and hat tipped just so, but at the back one could not help feeling a less enthused by matters. The first goal was to a large extent just the way the cookie crumbles, what with poor old Butland having to alternate between broken ankle and unbroken ankle for an unfortunate minute or so. A black mark against young Dier, it should be noted, in failing to prevent the Kroos shot, but in the grand scheme of things this was not one to bring civilisation to its knees.
The second goal, however, was a different kettle of fish, not least because it was of the ilk that England seem to concede so dashed regularly. Against Balotelli and Suarez in the World Cup I seem to recall relatively straightforward balls into the area causing no end of bedlam within our back four. And as sure as night follows day, on Saturday night the England centre-backs again paraded around like toddlers in blindfolds, befuddled to within an inch of their lives by the combination of leather orb and lurking top-notch attacker. Not an easy task for them, granted, but progress in an international tournament will require a somewhat tighter padlock around the rear entrance, because Europe’s finest do not hang around for a snifter and cigar when presented with half a sight of the England net.
3. The Rooney Conundrum
Pop into your video box a flashback to Euro 2004 and its qualifiers, and I dare say you will rub your eyes in a heightened state of wonder, near enough agog at the sight of a young Wayne Rooney tearing through various European defences like a young bull doing his best to destroy a china shop in double-quick time. Fast forward a few birthdays, and Rooney’s performances tend to veer a little closer to ridiculous than sublime. The occasional eye-goggling volley does certainly ping into the top corner with the sweetness of a ripened nut, but as often as not the chap’s first touch seems to have packed its travel bag and wandered off for an extended sabbatical.
Given the general aplomb with which the England front five (or so) swagger this way and that as they go about their lawful business, one spots the issue at a pretty nifty rate of knots. This England attack is dashed well primed, with Alli behind Kane, pacy options in the wider areas and substitutes offering various combinations of speed and trickery. Barrelling Rooney into the midst of this is rather like attempting one of those awkward long-division sums as a child, that ends up with an answer of 17 but with a calamitous remainder of 13 or so, that just causes headaches whichever way one stares at the paper.
All eyes then on wise old Corporal Hodgson, who on the one hand has pledged understandable allegiance to his captain – who did after all make a habit of finding the net during the 100% qualifying campaign – but on the other hand will not be oblivious to the strengths of this new-look, all-singing, all-dancing England.
One notable addendum to this is the fact that despite his appearance as a kindly grandfather with no particular clue about how to operate the remote control, Hodgson does actually have a history of turning his baseball cap back to front and making some eye-catching calls. Cast your minds back to the last World Cup, and when James Milner appeared to offer the safety-first option in our opener against Italy, Hodgson inked himself a tattoo on his arm, moodily answered back to his parents and threw Raheem Sterling into the thick of the thing. The chap, it seems, moves in mysterious ways his team selections to perform.
Do excuse me while I momentarily don my England hat: this missive, from one of the souls frequently to be found loitering around AANP Towers, appeared on football365.com earlier today:
Whatever the rights and wrongs of Rio’s concentration lapse, the curious manner in which Green was sent off, the withdrawal of Lennon and the fact that we lost, it strikes me as far more useful than if we’d played with 11 and coasted to a comfy victory. We’ve had it all our own way so far in this campaign - and deservedly so by and large, we’ve earned it - so with qualification in the bag a more testing scenario ought to have been of much greater benefit in preparing for the World Cup. Playing almost the whole game with ten men, and chasing the game for a good hour, will hopefully have been vaguely educational for the players, who can expect far sterner tests throughout the World Cup Finals than they’ve received in the Qualifiers.
In particular, I was glad that the less proven and less experienced international players, like Johnson and Carrick, got to experience a tricky game away from home, in a testing atmosphere and against a team who desperately wanted a win. I would hope they’ll learn a lot more from that than they would have done in another 4-1 romp at Wembley. Knowing what strategy we adopt with ten men could also prove a handy lesson come South Africa.
For the same reason, I see a silver lining in Rooney’s withdrawal for the Belarus game. Admittedly they’re not the toughest opponents so we should be able to beat them even without our top players, but just in terms of preparation for the World Cup, playing a competitive game without Rooney is necessary for the team to know how to adapt. We struggled without him in crunch games in previous tournaments, and while he’s a dead cert to start when available, we need to have at least some semblance of a plan to cope without him. In both 2004 and 2006 we were knocked out when he exited, and there’s always a possibility he’ll be injured/suspended for a crucial game or two in 2010. Blessings in disguise, I tell ye.
It wasn’t particularly broke, it didn’t need fixing. Curious then that Fabio suddenly came over all Norman Bates, picked up an axe and started swinging wildly until something was indeed broken.Lennon was doing a decent job on the right. He had not set the world alight, but there was always a threat, a bit of a buzz, whenever he got the ball and ran at his man. “Menacing” might be the word I’m after. That part in a horror film where the delectable and scantily clad young jezebel finds herself on her own in a dark house – you get the feeling something worth watching is about to happen, even though it might be a red herring.
Lennon on the right offered a genuine attacking threat, balancing (albeit asymmetrically) the Cole-Barry-Gerrard-Rooney combo from the left. At least, that’s how it was in the first half. The withdrawal of Lennon ten mins into the second half robbed England of their only pacy outlet, and coincided with the drop from “urgent” to “perfunctory”.
The introduction of Beckham ought to imply a general shoring up of things, with the game in the bag and 15 mins to go. Instead he was brought on with only a one-goal lead and 35 mins to play. Beckham didn’t get within 30 yards of the Ukraine by-line.
However, Beckham did provide the cross for the winner, which is basically his raison d’être in the team these days, and is something Lennon generally can’t do (certainly not from deep). So was Fabio right after all to withdraw Lennon? The case in his defence – Beckham’s assist – has been made; the prosecution argues that his introduction of Wright-Phillips once Ukraine had equalised indicates that Capello recognised the need for pace missing since Lennon’s withdrawal.
I guess the conclusion is that the whole bally lot of them rather lost urgency in the second half, and the replacement of Lennon with Beckham was a contributory factor – but, when it was needed, Beckham offered an attacking threat, albeit in a vastly different way from Lennon.
The Rest of Them
Elsewhere, it’s broken-record time, as Gerrard’s performance for country was again patently less impressive than his typical displays for club (which is the cue for all Liverpool fans to create life-size models of All-Action-No-Plot Towers and then burn them down in incandescence). Gerrard remains a square peg in a round hole for England. He is most effective behind the front man; but this would negate Rooney, who in a different sort of way is also most effective behind the front man. The bar ain’t big enough for the two of them.
Gerrard on the left is fine against Slovakia, but one wonders if he’ll be quite as effective on the left in the latter stages of a World Cup. Personally I’d go with J. Cole left, and Gerrard-Barry in the centre, with Gerrard having more licence to attack than Lampard currently does. The whole business of Lampard playing a more “disciplined” – i.e. defensive – role had me flailing my arms and muttering in frustration all night.
My man-crush on Rooney continues, but that darned red mist enveloped him once again.
James – calamity.
Ashley Cole – strangely beset by an identity crisis that had him thoroughly clueless as to his nationality, with the result that he spent most of the game passing to Ukrainians. Someone dig out the boy’s passport and talk him through it.
Terry – good assist, and smartly-taken goal, but reckless in conceding the free-kick for their goal. Oh that Ledley’s knee was healthy.
Crouch’s goal was also smartly-taken, but the celebrations for both goals were rubbish. Crouch at least had the decency to look thoroughly embarrassed by whatever the hell he was doing. The Terry-Rooney routine was as appalling as it was perplexing.
However, the bright and breezy take on the game is that we were excellent in the first half, patient and dangerous; and when we absolutely had to raise our game in the second half we did. Three points is all-important in qualifying. If/when we make the World Cup Finals, no-one will care about that dodgy half 30 mins in the second half vs Ukraine in April.
For all the well-deserved plaudits, we didn’t learn much about England on Saturday. Rather reminded me of a wedding rehearsal – polite, happy, didn’t count for anything. Slovakia played like footballing eunuchs and were duly thrashed at a canter.Ukraine, and their occasionally-preceding definite article, ought to prove a slightly different kettle of fish - but only slightly. Fifa’s curious ranking system has Ukraine within the top 20, and it is worth noting that, like England, they made the World Cup quarter finals in 2006. Shevchenko and chums are no mugs then - but this is the sort of straight-faced diplomacy trotted out by the players, in those excruciatingly bland pre-match press conferences sprinkled with phrases like “We won’t be underestimating them… No easy games at international level…”
Cutting through the blandness, and Fabio’s England, on the back of some perky form and with a team brimming full of Champions League connoisseurs, certainly ought to beat Ukraine at home. It’s unlikely to be quite as merry a cakewalk as on Saturday, but we still ought to win. While our position five points clear of Croatia gives us some margin for error, it would be better to have that in hand for the trip to Kiev, or visit of Croatia to Wembley. Ukraine at home is not really the time to slip up.
After the maternal members of the Terry family tried their hands at shoplifiting last week, there seemed grounds to suggest that at the weekend the family brain cell was being used by the England captain. This argument was promptly shot down at Wembley when JT ensured that a certain Crouch goal was disallowed for offside, by tapping in from one yard, when the ball was already past the ‘keeper and heading for the net. Better it happens in a friendly, I guess, but hardly the most impressive display of tactical acumen. Looks like Rio will be back to partner him on Wednesday.
A propos Rooney, the news that Crouch has recovered from injury suggests that Wednesday will see the beanpole up top, with the human gargoyle in that scrumptious position just off the main striker. Nods of approval at AANP Towers. Presumably Gerrard will continue on the left, where he did a good job on Saturday. The link-up play between him and Rooney has inevitably attracted plenty of praise, but he’s nevertheless a square peg in a round hole out there, and a better team then Slovakia (a fairly wide-ranging criterion admittedly) could expose both his right-footedness and defensive lapses. However, it seems this is his home for now, so he might as well bed in and make himself comfy.
The injuries to Heskey, Carlton Cole and Crouch led to some speculation over who would be called up. Michael Owen and Kevin Davies were the names being bandied around. In those kits I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Terry Thomas make an appearance. As it happened our very own Darren Bent got the nod.
The Darren Bent Confidence-O-Meter
Sat 7 March – Recalled to the Spurs starting XI against Sunderland, the dial on Bent’s Confidence-O-Meter stirs into life and hits 4 out of 10. However, a trademark Bent miss high into the north-east sky, sees the dial return to rock bottom, with our hero considering packing it all in.
Sun 15 March – Bent keeps his place in the starting XI for Villa, and the dial pings upwards again. His sensational two-inch tap-in sees the dial go right off the scale. Winning goal! Victory at Villa! The man is a hero - at least inside his own head - and his confidence has never been so high!
Weds 18March – Forgets to take the bin out for collection. Confidence begins to slump.
Sat 21 March – Retains his place in the starting XI, for visit of Chelski, and all is right with the world again. To his credit he worked his hoopy socks off, and contributed worthily to another fine win. These happy thoughts have the Confidence-O-Meter right up at level 10. However, every time he remembers that he didn’t actually score, it drops down several levels – such is the brittle existence of a “confidence player”. Just stay positive Dazza!
Sunday 29 March – The Bent Confidence-O-Meter explodes irreparably after Fabio calls him up for international duty, following injuries to the first 18 strikers on the list.
So it’s a good day to be Darren Bent. Or at least it was until he did his knee in training and Fabio called up Agbonlahor. Crouch and Rooney will start up front for England, and if things are going to plan I’d imagine Fabio will replace a striker with a midfielder in the closing stages, which will mean precious little action for either Bent of Agbonlahor.
Milestones for Terry and Beckham
On a final and belated note, AANP Towers politely and sincerely applauds Terry on winning his 50th cap, and similarly lauds Beckham on his 109th. One suspects that this newly-set record for outfield appearances will itself be surpassed soon enough – the modern-day international calendar seeing to it that the Ukraine game is Rooney’s 50th for England, at age 23. Nevertheless, while subtly steering clear of any sort of debate over his selection, I suggest that, whatever his off-pitch shenanigans, Beckham’s attitude in an England shirt always seems to be one of fierce and honest commitment. If all goes to plan more applause will be ringing out on Wednesday night.
A virulent strain of man-flu left me stuck in AANP Towers, and unable to venture out in search of the curious GCSE Media project that is Setanta. 5Live and ITV highlights for me – the extended exposure to 5Live’s Alan Green robbing me of much of the will to live – so my take on the game, tactically wanting at the best of times, is about as meaty as a vegan’s lunch-box today.I had hoped for the challenge of a decent period of parity, to give England a bit of a test of patience and creativity. The early goal duly robbed the game of much purpose, although it’s one for the Wembley crowd to tell disbelieving grandchildren several decades hence, having been netted by Heskey. The eventual 4-0 scoreline suggests that the Slovaks obediently fulfilled their roles of sacrificial lambs without demur.
Some fluffy and inane thoughts to pass the time, based purely on the noises that came from my radio:
· There is a concern that the Upson-Terry central defensive pairing has a lack of pace that would be punished by better teams (a penny for Ledley’s thoughts).
· A bizarre, Darren Anderton-themed game of musical chairs amongst the strikers saw about twenty of them trot on, get injured and trot straight off. I’m cleaning my boots in anticipation of a call-up to the squad for Wednesday. As is Kevin Davies, according to the good folk of the BBC. Distressingly, only one of these statements is made in jest. (Hot off the press - well, luke-warm – is the news that big bad Dazza Bent is to transfer that hurt, confused, hands-half-raised-to-head look from club to country, having been summoned by the Don. Cripes. Another penny please, this time for Michael Owen’s thoughts.)
· The question of whether to build the team around Gerrard or Rooney seems to have replaced the question of whether to pick Gerrard or Lampard.
· Lennon, apparently, was ok (and, mercifully, withdrawn without injury). However, there was something approaching consensus on the view that Beckham’s crossing gives him the edge, even if Lennon gets the nod on Wednesday.
Fairly bland, satisfactory and meaningless then, as anticipated by all and sundry. More entertainingly, away from the lumpy Wembley turf there had been an increasingly farcical air about the England soap opera over the last day or two, conjuring up images of poorly-scripted day-time TV soap operas.
· Bewilderingly, both the mother and mother-in-law of John Terry found themselves in trouble with Her Majesty’s finest, for shop-lifting. The mind boggles. It’s like a caption competition without a picture.
· After much fanfare the new, £50(!) England shirt was unveiled. Presumably intended to hark back to the days of Lofthouse et al, it looks rather like the design brief was assigned to an eight year-old, who quickly became distracted and forgot to complete it. It certainly evokes memories of Tottenham – both Spurs’ plain white shirt of last season, and the PE uniform I wore as a nipper in the playground on the High Road, just opposite White Hart Lane. Neither here nor there I guess, but it does aggrieve me to think that someone somewhere is minted on the back of designing that.
· The tête-a-tête between Fabio and ‘Arry simmers on, although now less Rocky vs Apollo Creed, and more schoolgirls spreading gossip about each other. Fabio raised the point that there was no objection to the call-up of Alan Hutton to the Scotland squad, after several months out, as there had reportedly been to Ledley’s selection. Possibly a mistake on the Italian’s part, as the circumstances are different. The Ledley objection revolves around his recovery time, as a strictly once-a-week player; Hutton is more straightforwardly just back from a one-off, non-recurrent injury.
So all a bit surreal, but pleasing enough. Things should at least pick up as the more serious business of the qualifier vs Ukraine approaches, followed by the Premiership programme next weekend. Bon weekend, one and all.
A friendly against some generic Eastern European country will make for a pretty underwhelming Saturday evening. Slovakia, as with Slovenia, Estonia, Belarus and the rest of them, never has contributed anything to football, and probably never will. No-one can name a famous Slovakian player, they will all have rubbish haircuts and are basically the international equivalent of Bolton or someone. It’s likely to be tedious and eminently forgettable - yet is probably a smart choice on the part of the FA bigwigs, given that next week the players all have to make diplomatic noises about the qualifier against Ukraine.Actually, Slovakia might be half-decent, having once been part of a country with healthy footballing pedigree – Czechoslovakia (still part of them in fact, within the strange alternate universe that is David Pleat’s head, where there exists “the republic of Czechoslovakia”. Get that man his own seat in the European Parliament, and watch as history is rewritten.) However, it’s a long-shot. Slovakia might be have some talent, but the likelihood is that this will quickly descend into the archetypal big-boys-vs-lower-league fare.
Personally I quite hope that the game remains nil-nil well after the first half hour, and into the second half. If Slovakia stick eleven men behind the ball, and play the role of untalented spoilers an Rooney-baiters, they will provide a useful test of England’s patience and creativity. By contrast a couple of early goals would draw out the Slovaks, create space and lead to a rout – we would learn nothing. A long barren stalemate will at least give England the experience of breaking down stubborn opponents. With England cruising atop the group, the only potential obstacle to World Cup qualification is likely to be rubbish Eastern Europeans slamming the ball to halfway and inviting us to go again.
Mind you, failure to score an early goal against Absurdistan would probably have the Wembley crowd laying eggs and bottling one another. It’s probably just a minority, but I can honesty say I’ve never heard such a shamefully abusive and impatient bunch. Nevertheless, at the risk of enraging the Neanderthalic Massive, I’m hoping for a dour, goalless start to the game.
Gerrard On The Left
Injury to the fantastic Joe Cole has again provided a handy escape route from the Lampard-Gerrard problem. Gerrard is fist-clenchingly annoying, but I can’t deny that he’s been awesome in that role behind the striker(s) this season. It seems a right waste to shunt him out left, even though our own wonderful Luka has demonstrated that this need not be a hindrance to a creative genius.
I hope that once Cole is fit again he assumes the left-hand berth, and Gerrard replaces Lamps as the attacking central midfielder. Cole has consistently been excellent for England on the left, provides balance and width, despite being right-footed, and is the only player capable of dribbling past his man.
Lampard is no mug, but just is not as good as Gerrard. If it comes to a straight choice between the two, I hope Capello opts for the scouser (as he think he has previously done on occasion). Lampard would certainly be an excellent player to have coming off the bench.
As mentioned, I’m hardly pushing to be secretary of the Steve Gerrard Fan Cub. Top player, but like that other squeaking irritant, Jamie Carragher, he seems far more concerned about his club than country. Like Carragher, I imagine he would have little hesitation in chucking in the international game if it dawned on him that he did not have a divine right to a place in the starting XI. Presumably he changes light-bulbs by holding them and waiting for the world to revolve around him. And, on top of everything else, he always bangs home the pressure pens for his club (vs Man Utd and Real) but messed up in the quarter-final shoot-out at the World Cup. Still haven’t forgiven him for that.
So hopefully we’ll learn a few things before the glut of second-half substitutions. Great opportunity for Lennon to stake his claim. One-Trick Downing will presumably continue the crime of the century by adding a further England cap to his collection in the second half. Yet another pretender will try on the gloves. Win, lose or draw, no-one will remember this once we’re at South Africa next year.
Sunday: Ledley gets called up to the England squad.M
onday: ‘Arry’s twitches go into overdrive – “Madness”, he rages, “The boy can’t train all week! His knee swells up the size of Croydon! We only had two points…”Tuesday: Ledley gets sent back home by England. (Perhaps for maximal effect this should be read whilst listening to the Benny Hill theme tune)
It seems that Fabio
“Einstein” Capello and his crack team of monkeys have concluded that Ledley’s knee, currently stuck together with sellotape and string, will not stand up to the rigours of twice-daily international training sessions and two international matches per week. In the same press release Capello also revealed that some bears prefer to defecate in woodland areas, and that Pope Benedict is a Catholic.
As it’s a quiet week for football news the media have gone to town with tales of how the relationship between Fabio and ‘Arry has descended to the level of to-the-death physical combat. Not there are too many direct quotes to substantiate the claims that the pair are not getting along, but the line we’re being fed is that they are not about to skip around hand-in-hand in congenial agreement on what to do with Ledley, who is being tossed around like a lump of meat while the two camps bicker away.Kind of England, King of The Lane
It seems equally reasonable of ‘Arry to have objected to the prospect of Ledley being asked to train, or play twice in a week, given that he’s physically incapable of either. So far, so good. Despite the exhalation of some hot air, both have got their way.
The more pressing issue was whether Ledley would play for England next Wednesday, as that would have ruled him out of Spurs’ game the following weekend. Club trumped country on that one, and Ledley was sent back to Spurs Lodge, for some hardcore watching from the sidelines as others train.
Lescott and Upson vs Torres and Villa: Scary
In theory it’s a cracking idea. Ledley’s pockets are bulging, full of all the strikers he’s kept there over the years, for club and country. He would certainly provide excellent cover for Rio as the ball-playing centre-back, and not too many eyebrows would raised if he were considered for the starting XI. In practice, however, the guy is a cripple six days out of seven. His inability to play more than once a week renders him an unaffordable luxury in a World Cup, where games come around every four days or so.
Some have argued that Ledley would be worth a place in a World Cup squad, even though unable to play twice in a week, because, as a stand-by defender, he is better than all the alternatives. Understandable point, when one thinks of, for example, a quarter-final against Torres and Villa, with England boasting Upson or Lescott at the back. A one-legged Ledley would probably instil more confidence than those two.
The Verdict Is…
Just this once, my argument is not borne of a pro-Spurs bias, for those at All Action No Plot Towers wave their England scarves as enthusiastically as their Tottenham ones. If anything, having a foot in both camps, and with impeccable balance, I am unusually well-placed to offer an objective opinion, in contrast to my usual, excessively blinkered rants.
On a personal level it’s desperately unlucky, for one of the most gifted defenders of his generation. I like to think that I am uniquely positioned to feel Ledley
’s pain, given that I too have an unfortunate congenital condition – known in medical circles as a “twinge” – which prevents me from training midweek in between Monday night 5-a-side games. Neither Ledley nor I, kindred spirits, are likely ever to represent our country in a World Cup, and purely because of our wretched medical predicaments, callously thrust upon us by a cruel and vengeful Lady Luck. (You see? It’s all a woman’s fault.)So what conclusions to draw from this sorry tale, aside from desperately sympathetic pats of consolation for the blighter? Unfortunately, there is not much left to do but, rather guiltily, wait for Ledley to get back to business in the lilywhite of Tottenham, rather than England. Despite this, I can’t help feeling that the matter is far from closed. There’s a year until the World Cup, and while we should probably just be grateful to see Ledley on the pitch at all, it seems certain that as long as he is playing for Tottenham he will be courted by Fabio’s mafia.
Headgear readjustments this week, as I donned my England hat, carefully placing it alongside the Tottenham version. Although the defeat to Spain didn’t feature any Spurs players, the naming of One-Trick Downing on the left had me sharpening knives, practising my most caustic put-downs, and preparing once again to do battle with those who claim that he’d be a worthy addition to the lilywhite ranks.However, a couple of spanners appeared in the works. For a start, this is hardly new ground. Whether they agree or not, seasoned all-action-no-plotters can virtually lip-synch with me as I trot out my usual lines of argument (decent player but not £14 mil of special; and not exactly a little bundle of unpredictability either), and the responses are themselves fairly predictable too (a natural left-footer provides balance to the midfield; and early crosses for our often ball-starved forwards).
The other problem with revisiting the Downing debate was more practical in nature. If watching “soccer” while holidaying in Oz was pretty darned tricky, then catching a game in New Zealand was nigh on impossible. Just the goals for me then, and the case against One-Trick can be adjourned with no further questions from this particular prosecution.
However, the debate will rage on, particularly in the summer. Rather than just moan about what I consider to be the problem, I shall take the novel and proactive step of suggesting a solution. One other name very briefly linked with Spurs, probably by a gossip-mongerer with a penchant for the particularly tenuous, was that of Joe Cole.
Until around 2004 – 05 the left-wing had been a major headache for the national team, with the list of earnest but inappropriate players shunted into the round hole including Heskey, Gerrard, Barmby, Bridge, Scholes, McManaman and Alan Thompson. Enter Joe Cole, stage left, and the problem ceased to be. Despite being right-footed he seemed to balance the midfield by maintaining positional discipline; he crossed well with both feet; was willing to cut infield (admittedly perhaps a little too willing at times); chipped in with goals; and was (is) pretty much the only player in the national squad with the natural ability to dribble past opponents. He is also one of the few flair players I can think of who is willing to devote as much energy to the hard work of scrapping and harrying as to his dribbling.
And the counter arguments? He can frustrate by failing to impact upon games as much as he ought to; he sometimes dribbles when a pass is on; and he regularly exhibits that most obnoxious of traits – the dive. An undoubted further source of irritation is that he has a voice so high that wild dogs run for cover when a microphone is thrust towards his visage, but the impact of this upon his performances appears minimal.
Not perfect then, but if being compared with One-Trick Downing, “perfection” is a criterion that can be safely tucked away in a drawer and forgotten about until we reach a completely different topic of discussion.
So I’m firmly in the tongue-twisting pro-Joe-Cole camp. Although now out for the season with an injury, there were murmurs to the effect that Cole was not entirely enamoured with life at Stamford Bridge this season. Apparently he was substituted in a dozen consecutive games by Scolari, up until his injury a few weeks ago. With bids of £14 mil bewilderingly being faxed off to Middlesborough there would have been a strong case for redirecting those funds towards Stamford Bridge. It’s all a little academic now, for numerous reasons (transfer window closed, Cole out until the summer, managerial shenanigans at Chelski). However, with our left wing unlikely to solve itself before May, and presuming we don’t continue our buy-back policy and re-sign Steed, I’ll happily design, print out and publicise the bring Joe-Cole-to-the-Lane petition.
“‘Tis a meaningless friendly,” they bleated. (And I include me in “they”, so should probably make that “we”…) It’s not looking so meaningless now, as plenty of lessons were learned, many of them positive. Inevitably, as there is only one international game per month, it’s easy to blow out of proportion a single match, but ne’ertheless:
Central midfield: As seasoned all-action-no-plotters will know, I had been planning to watch this particularly carefully, fine tooth-comb and magnifying glass at the ready. Neither Carrick nor Barry offered forward bursts from the centre, so I allow myself one smug, told-you-so smirk (if you don’t believe me check yesterday’s blog, then bow down and worship my sagacity). However, by way of compensation - and it was ample - they looked after possession fretlessly and for long spells, only perhaps losing control in the last 20 or so, when Germany toyed with the idea of coming back into the game. Rather than burst into attacking positions, they kept an eye on things like sensible childminders, while toddlers in the shape of SWP, Downing and Agbonlahor tore around all over the place. The Carrick-Barry partnership looked good because they let the wingers (assisted by the full-backs) and the forwards do all the running, and that was sufficient to cause attacking problems. Through the decision not to burst forward (or inability to do so?) they also offered protection to a back four which consequently never looked particularly troubled.
Is this what we want from a central midfield pairing? Limited attacking intent, no dribbling, no appearances in the opposition area? Well, it’s hardly the stuff of which all-action-no-plot dreams are made, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and last night’s food for thought was a controlled away win against the team ranked second in the world. It would be wrong to ignore the footnote that this was very much Germany’s second-string, but nevertheless, England’s system worked effectively. It was not particularly action-packed and adrenaline-fuelled, but my goodness it was disciplined and effective. Particularly impressive was the manner in which England maintained their discipline, and continued to control the game, after conceding the shoddy equaliser. No heads dropping and no resorting to the headless chicken act. Taking their cue from Barry and Carrick the players maintained their shape and treasured possession. And eventually forced a win. How often have England been chastised for squandering possession, and for an “attack-attack-attack” obsession, for playing the 100 miles per hour “English way”? Last night showed that an England team can keep possession and play patiently, and can beat strong teams this way.
Such a performance frankly leaves me torn - I want to loathe it, I yearn for a return to the mindless, kamikaze attacking style perfected by Spurs, of conceding four but trying to score five. I yearn for a return to central midfielders who bomb forward and dribble past people and shoot from outside the area, leaving gaping holes behind them and creating end-to-end madness. I yearn for a return to all-action-no-plot, dammit! And last not was all about plot, with any moments of action meticulously planned and never let out of control! And it worked a dream! Aaaargh…
Anyway. Another thing we learned from last night is that pace at international level is a fantastic weapon. Credit to Agbonlahor, he used his well, and the Germans struggled to contain him, as the Croats struggled with Walcott, and previous international teams have struggled with Lennon and even Rooney. The combo of two similar strikers (he and Defoe first half, he and Bent second half) didn’t necessarily give evidnece of a particularly promising nascent partnership, but having two of them scuttling about seemed to keep the German defence occupied, in a way in which a lone striker might not necessarily have done, given the lack of attacking intent from central midfield.
Downing played well. I feel unclean having written that, but no denying it, his natural left-footedness was an asset, and his distribution was good. Neither winger was afraid to drift ten yards infield occasionally either, with credit due here to the attacking full-backs for overlapping. The contributions of the wingers and forwards, all of whom looked like they knew exactly what their jobs were, meant that there was little need for Barry and Carrick to join in the attacks.
Upson looked assured in defence (and can now join Anthony Gardner and Jermaine Jeans on the list of greats who has scored for his country).
And finally, last night also taught us that a moment’s lapse in concentration at international level is likely to be punished. Worth remembering.
An abridged version of this badboy was also published on the letters page of football365.com:
The withdrawal of players from the England squad to face Germany has been well documented, with some nine regular starters now missing. While the likes of Young and Agbonlahor, Mancienne and Richards will be desperate to put in a performance that cements their positions in the squad, I’ll be focusing on two of those who are already well-established, within the squad if not quite within the starting XI. In the absence of both Gerrard and Lampard, the central midfield partnership is likely to be Carrick and Barry. Barry has, recently, tended to start more often than not; while Carrick is, it’s fair to say, fourth in the queue behind Messrs Gerrard, Lampard and Barry for the central midfield berth.
Gerrard and Lampard are notoriously similar types, both happiest when casting aside their responsibilities and bombing forward. Given their similarity, the problem of pairing them effectively seems to have been one of the great conundrums of the 21st century. A train of thought that has been gathering momentum has been to play just one of them, alongside the more sedate Barry. In Gerrard’s absence, Lampard and Barry performed admirably in the 4-1 away win against Croatia, our finest victory in years. I personally would prefer this combo, of one of Gerrard or Lampard, paired with Barry, while the other of Gerrard or Lampard sits on the bench, to provide a highly potent weapon as substitute. Successive England managers have begged to differ, and Fabio’s solution remains unknown, given that, in the crunch, competitive games, injury has deprived him of the pair of them together.
The notion of one playing and one on the bench gives the squad the appearance of depth. Few would doubt that a central midfield needs at least one attack-minded, creative type, someone who can spot offensive passes and time his runs into the area to support the forwards. However, I worry that with both Gerrard and Lampard unavailable, England’s cupboard begins to look bare, in this respect. Barry and Carrick are both players I admire, but for similar reasons – ie the positional discipline they bring, as foils for attacking players, and the range and control of their passing, priceless in ball retention at international level. However, just as neither of Gerrard and Lampard seems to have the ability, let alone the inclination, to sit back and hold fort as half of a central midfield pairing, so neither of Barry and Carrick seem to have the natural ability to burst forward and create as half of a central midfield pairing. In a top-level international game (as opposed to a qualifier at Wembley vs Absurdistan) the entire team will look to the central midfield pair to pull the strings and create. Pace on the wings, and vision in the hole are obviously integral, but if the midfield offers nothing then the other attackers will not receive the necessary service.
Which brings me back to tonight. What are our options, if both Gerrard and Lampard are missing? It will be exciting to see Young and SWP on the wings, and the pace of Agbonlahor upfront - but central midfield? Fabio looks set to go with Carrick and Barry – and frankly I’ll buy a hat and eat it if these two together pin back the Germans. I don’t see a natural conduit between midfield and attack with this pair in the centre, I see a great yawning chasm. On the bench we have Parker and Bullard, left back at home we have Jenas. In theory I guess Joe Cole could fill the “creative central midfielder” role, but I’m not sure anyone in England genuinely considers the former three to be international quality. I would be delighted to be proved wrong tonight, but beyond Gerrard and Lampard, England’s central midfield cupboard looks to me to be a little bare.