07 February, 2008

England 2 – 1 Switzerland

Yay! We won! Problems all solved right? We didn’t wanna waste our summer playing in some pointless kickabout tournament anyway, we’ve got bigger World Cup 2010-shaped fish to fry, and the path to glory started last night at a packed Wembley Stadium.

They might’ve been neutral during World War II, but Switzerland showed more backbone than expected throughout the course of the match, trying to play football and causing several problems within our defensive third of the pitch. This will be the main concern for Fabio Capello one would imagine, with Gareth Barry and the back four often dragged out of position just following the ball, where a simple man-to-man approach would have sufficed against such tame opposition.

Looking at the positives though, the so-called front three of Joe Cole, David Bentley and Wayne Rooney were all excellent, with Rooney a particular stand-out who deserved a goal. Furthermore, Steven Gerrard was more involved than he has been for years while wearing an England shirt, enjoying particular attacking freedom in the second half while the Swiss struggled to keep track of our movement with all their substitutions. Jermaine Jenas also continued some decent club form this year with a solid performance in the first half, but with a tendency to go missing in defence, perhaps he isn’t the long-term answer to our lightweight midfield we’ve been searching for since Paul Scholes retired. Shaun Wright-Phillips impressed as well in bursts after his introduction around the hour-mark, but he still has such an inconsistent end product that I’d be wary of ever starting with him in a competitive international.

Many of the same old issues remain unresolved however, and depressingly they seem to all revolve around the bare basics of the game; passing and movement. Too often players carrying the ball forward are lacking in options, and those options that are available tend to be receiving the ball standing still. This never happens with the best European club sides, let alone the truly great technical international sides. Arsenal for example have an attacking strategy centred around perhaps the simplest move of all, the wall pass, and this at least is something which our attacking players need to develop in their locker. These things all come from time spent playing together however, so I wouldn’t be too worried just yet after only three training sessions with the new Italian regime.

So yes, it’s a winning start for this new era of English football, but 7 of our last 9 managers have enjoyed the same success, so let’s not get carried away. The first real test comes next month away in Paris to 2006 World Cup runners-up France, who will surely want better preparation for the summer than last night’s damp 1 – 0 defeat to Spain. With more than just the three days time he had here with the team, we should all hope for slightly more evidence of Capello’s influence next month, with the fight and passion epitomized by his numerous European sides of the past at least evident. He has built his success on defending high up the pitch, competing for 95 minutes out of every 90, and having explosive match-winners in the final third. If we can find a decent partner for Rooney to play off, and establish the kind of sublime relationship he has with Carlos Tevez at Man United, then with the service of Bentley and Joe Cole or Ashley Young, we start to look pretty threatening. Then with Owen Hargreaves fit and back in the holding midfield role, we should have a stronger anchor to give the likes of Gerrard even more license to get forward and hit the ball on the edge of the penalty area.

Peter Crouch, Ashley Cole and Wes Brown need to go though, they simply are not good enough for this level and, since we need to be looking two years into the future, the time to draft permanent replacements in is now. World Cup qualification is the best part of a year away so let’s get a forward-thinking squad together now and put sentiment to one side. David Beckham and Michael Owen too, while great servants over the last decade, are well over the hill now so the sooner it is made clear they will never feature again for England, the better. Sorry guys!