It was England’s last competitive game before next summer’s World Cup finals, but Fabio Capello’s team selection and his side’s altogether tepid performance, gave it all the hallmarks of an international friendly. Indeed Capello’s starting line-up raised a few eyebrows, as with the mercurial Wayne Rooney injured, and joined on the sidelines by fellow star man Steven Gerrard, England’s focal point and inspiration had to come from elsewhere. Instead, the likes of Gabriel Agbonlahor, Peter Crouch, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Aaron Lennon were to lead the attacking onslaught, in a side that wreaked of blistering pace but limited in terms of on-the-ball quality.
2 Johnson – 5 Ferdinand – 6 Terry – 3 A.Cole
7 Lennon – 8 Lampard – 4 Barry – 11 Wright-Phillips
9 Crouch – 10 Agbonlahor
Capello’s main interest on the game was in how his side would cope without Rooney. The Manchester United man has been in excellent form throughout the qualifying campaign and his place and importance to the team will only rise after last night’s offerings. Admittedly taking into account the triviality of the match itself will be in Capello’s mind but there was no doubt his side lacked the imagination, guile and link-up Rooney offers. The 23-year-old is the link between the midfield and strikers – something that was distinctly lacking against Belarus. Crouch’s contributions were mainly from long balls – flick-ons and what not – while Agbonlahor simply runs in behind defenders. Capello is clearly a fan of the little-and-large combo, and the Crouch-Agbonlahor duo offered up what looked on paper a decent partnership. However, the duo failed to link up with each other – the opening goal the only occasion that springs to mind – while their inability to link up further down the pitch meant England were outnumbered in the midfield areas.
Indeed Belarus – ranked 77th in the world rankings – saw plenty of the ball and for periods of the game, were dominant. Possession at international level is of the utmost importance, something that is ultimately lost on the speed-wizards of Lennon, Agbonlahor and Wright-Phillips, whose directness suits counter-attacking play. It was slightly baffling why Capello opted to start with both Wright-Phillips and Lennon – who are seemingly in a direct fight for a seat on the plane next summer – on either flank. Wright-Phillips has slipped behind Lennon in the pecking order in recent months and Capello felt he deserved another chance to prove himself following a few quiet displays. But a slot on the left-wing did him no favours, although the Manchester City flyer acquitted himself well. Whether Capello was testing Wright-Phillips’ versatility – something that will give any player an advantage for South Africa – was unclear but the City man put himself back into the England equation with a good outing.
It was surprising however to see James Milner not given a better chance after numerous impressive substitute outings in the Three Lions shirt. Indeed Milner is much better suited to the left-wing role and based on the last few performances, deserved his chance over Wright-Phillips. Whatever it was behind Capello’s thinking is unclear, but what is clear, is that the use of two pacey wingers in the flat four-man midfield was unworkable. The introduction of David Beckham gave the team greater balance and saw England get a grip of the possession with Beckham willing to come inside and join in with the central pairing of Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard – who were at times, simply overrun. This is something Gerrard or even Rooney are more inclined to do to give England that extra midfield man when needed. Messrs Barry and Lampard struggled to keep a hold of the game because of this, with the duo struggling to retain the ball and at times forcing the play. It must be said, Barry did make some telling passes – most notably in the build up to both Crouch’s goals – but the former Aston Villa man was in the main largely wasteful, fundamentally because of his lack of offerings from the front men, or wingers. Crouch was mostly fed aerial balls while Barry and Lampard were forced into playing balls over the top of the defence for their pacey teammates to chase, meaning England failed to get a firm grip on the possession statistics.
One thing that will have pleased Capello would have been the clean sheet. There were no silly errors and the back four looked untroubled throughout despite their opponents playing some neat stuff. Ben Foster pulled off a stunning reflex save – his only real piece of action – to stake his case while Rio Ferdinand looked focused on the job after Capello’s apparent words to the United man. Glen Johnson continues to frustrate with his casual nature, as he needed his pace and athleticism to bale him after a few minor lapses. What cannot be denied however is Johnson’s attacking prowess. His forays into the opposition’s half are a major weapon for this England side and for the moment, that quality is surely keeping him in the job. The night wasn’t altogether short of positives as Crouch continued his outstanding goalscoring record in an England shirt – albeit against inferior opposition once more – while Agbonlahor’s fits-and-starts display showed promise although whether he is up to it at this level remains to be seen.
Last night’s match was described as an experiment by Capello and he lived up to his word, exploring other options and systems that may be sought without the irrepressible Rooney. The fact the game was against minnows such as Belarus meant all evidence extracted from such an experiment would have a massive ‘but’ by it. However, one thing that won’t have a ‘but’ by it, is the notion of just how much reliance will be heaped on Rooney come next summer.
England 3-0 Belarus – Crouch 4, 76, Wright-Phillips 59
England 4-4-2 – Foster – Johnson, Ferdinand, Terry, Bridge (Milner 78) – Lennon (Beckham 58), Lampard, Barry, Wright-Phillips – Agbonlahor (C. Cole 66), Crouch
Belarus 4-5-1 – Zhevnov – Kulchy, Yurevich, Sosnovskiy, Bordachev (Kashevsky 84) – Verkhovtsov, Omelyanchuk, Shitov, Kalachev, Kornilenko (Kovel 77) – Kutuzov (Rodionov 45)
Foster – a passenger, one fine save – 7
Johnson – showed his good and bad sides – 6
Bridge – not at his best – 6
Terry – solid – 7
Ferdinand – much improved – 7
Lennon – threatened but was too quiet – 6
Lampard – worked hard – 7
Barry – effective – 7
Wright-Phillips – lively, but little in terms of end product – 7
Agbonlahor – had his moments but lacks the required quality – 7
Crouch – can’t argue with his goals return – 8
Beckham – hungry, changed the game – 8
C. Cole – did well for third goal but otherwise mainly uninvolved – 6
Milner – continues to impress, even at left-back – 7
August 12, 2009 – 19:45 – Amsterdam ArenA, Amsterdam
Holland 2-2 England – Kuyt 10, van der Vaart 38 – Defoe 49, 77
– ECF – Three Lions gear up for ‘ridiculous’ friendly – August 11, 2009
– Match report
– England Analysis – Superior England spoiled by shocking errors
September 5, 2009 – 17:30 – Wembley, London
England 2-1 Slovenia – Lampard 31, Defoe 63 – Ljubijankic 83