It was a night that started so dismally, but England fans leaving the lights of Amsterdam were in buoyant mood as the Three Lions battled back from two goals down to earn a creditable draw with European giants Holland. It will be a game remembered for Jermaine Defoe’s announcement that he is indeed a contender for a berth in South Africa while England showed a huge amount of sloppiness that will have to be eradicated if they have any chance of securing World Cup glory.
It was an almost full-strength England team that took the field against a similarly strong Dutch outfit, giving Fabio Capello a chance to watch his ever-improving side put through a thorough examination. Steven Gerrard and David James were the only regulars missing with Capello giving Aston Villa sensation Ashley Young his first start in an England shirt on the left of midfield and Robert Green a chance to prove his worth in goal. It left the Three Lions with a much more functional and flat 4-4-2 formation with David Beckham given further hope with a start in his favoured wide right spot.
2 Johnson – 5 Ferdinand – 6 Terry – 3 A. Cole
7 Beckham- 8 Lampard – 4 Barry – 11 A. Young
9 Heskey – 10 Rooney
With Gerrard’s drive and creativity missing it was down to the likes of Young, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney to offer the inspiration in Amsterdam. The starting XI were only given 45 minutes as a full unit (as expected in a friendly), but there are still plenty of questions surrounding Capello’s first choice picks at present. Emile Heskey’s latest foray on the international stage seems to be slowly slipping away from him as he offered up another workmanlike performance that offered too little for an England No 9. No doubt strikers in the past and present have revelled in playing alongside the former Liverpool man, but Heskey’s overall offerings seem to come up short on the international stage and when partnered with Rooney up front, the side looks somewhat short of goals. Neither are natural predators or finishes and despite being valued at the other end of the pitch in terms of work-rate and endeavour, it remains a worry that England’s strike force is somewhat impotent.
Half-time signalled the arrival of Defoe and his offerings in the second period showed the Italian tactician just what his number one strike force had been lacking. Defoe’s willingness to get in behind defences using his pace and movement was unmatched by the Dutch defence throughout his second-half showing which ultimately culminated in a match-saving brace for the Tottenham hitman. Defoe was bright, sharp and quick, and the Dutch rearguard never had a moment to stop and take breath as the former West Ham striker spent his time peeling off his marker and stretching the defence leaving gaps for the team to exploit. Now Heskey is undoubtedly the better target man and he clearly puts himself about plenty, but on actually threatening the goal, Heskey is almost nil. In fact a half an hour showing from Carlton Cole may well have leapt to the front of Capello’s mind after the West Ham man showed superb hold up and link up play along with a genuine threat on goal in an excellent display. Capello has always maintained that no-one’s place is guaranteed in this England side so with Defoe and Cole unashamedly showing up the first choice striker pair, the Head Coach has certainly been given plenty to ponder.
Turning our attentions further down the pitch and England’s midfield had a fairly mixed day. Lampard seemed to again revel in the absence of Gerrard with the Chelsea midfielder making the kind of late forward bursts and link-up play with the strikers we’re so used to seeing in the blue of Chelsea but have been somewhat spared when wearing the Three Lions. His partnership with Barry is clearly improving by the game and the two did well in the centre of the park, contributing heavily to a decent amount of possession for the away side.
On the negative side, Barry and Lampard contributed somewhat to the hazardous mistakes in the first-half which lead the two goals for the Oranje. Although both goals were to an extent, terrible individual errors, the fact is when England attempted to pass the ball from the defence, no-one seemed interested in helping the player on the ball. Capello had clearly signalled his intent to make England play the ball up the pitch instead of relying on a target man to start the attacks. However, the players looked as if they knew what to do, but not how to do it. Countless times the ball was passed out to the full-back or centre-backs by the keeper, but there was a distinct lack of interest in offering the player on the ball an option or an angle for the pass. Players stood watching, half hoping the England player on the ball would indeed launch the ball aimlessly towards the strikers in hope it would stick, when in fact they should have been looking to get on the ball and move from back to front. The back four did not look as if they were comfortable enough to knock the ball around amongst themselves and when the midfielders tried to come and collect it, their contribution was to simply knock it straight backwards, instead of showing the confidence, composure and quality to turn on the ball and start heading in the right direction.
In the second half, when Barry was replaced by the more gifted Michael Carrick, there was a clear change in the distribution of the ball when taken from the defenders. Carrick’s superb composure and almost unrivalled passing ability allowed an England move to really take shape with the Three Lions playing some free-flowing and attractive football in the second period. Whether Carrick has done enough to force his way ahead of Barry is another matter, but the fight between the pair for that spot is certainly heating up nicely with both bringing an awful lot to the table.
A major disappointment to come from the game was the performance, or non-performance of flying winger Young. Such scintillating displays for Villa last term were rightfully merited with a starting spot for his country but if last season’s Young Player of the Year wishes to genuinely vie for a spot in the starting XI come next summer, he will have to offer a lot more than he did last night, in what was an altogether anonymous and disappointing showing. Young’s replacement, James Milner, was quick to upstage his Villa teammate as his directness and willingness culminated in a superb assist for Defoe’s second goal along with some fine work in amongst his 25-minute cameo.
Although Young’s performance was lacklustre, a lot worse could be said of England’s usually solid back-line. A first-half display reminiscent of some rather absent-minded schoolboy defending resulted in two gifted goals and a few other chances for the opposition. Rio Ferdinand and Glen Johnson were particularly poor with the word casual quickly springing to mind. Capello will have been quick to pounce on their lackadaisical efforts, reminding them their place is far from guaranteed. Behind them was understudy goalkeeper Green who put in another fine showing of shot-stopping, but whose decisiveness and dominance when the ball is crossed still raises question marks, especially when up against James.
Overall, England’s night in Amsterdam wasn’t as bad as it first promised. In fact, it was rather good. There were plenty of positives for Capello, as his side largely outplayed the third ranked team in the world on its own turf. Even though the former Milan Coach will have little interest in the result, the performances from the likes of Defoe, Cole, Milner and the side a