For a team already qualified for the World Cup and facing only a handful of games before the competition proper begins, ‘nothing games’ against Ukraine and Belarus have inadvertently provided England with the perfect start to their build-up. Playing 75 minutes with 10 men gave Fabio Capello a great opportunity to see how his players reacted to a numerical disadvantage, whilst Wayne Rooney’s withdrawal from Wednesday’s tie with Belarus hands the Three Lions another stern test. Often thought of as the creative fulcrum most England goals will emanate from, playing without Rooney will be as much of a challenge, if not more so, than the one handed the side on Saturday when Robert Green saw red.
Although England fans will have taken three points from Dnipropetrovsk and ask for a further three on Wednesday, given the choice between that and seeing how the team can answer some tough questions under competitive conditions, Capello will have chosen the latter. Given England’s situations, how did they first react to the Ukraine challenge, and then how will they to that of Belarus without their No 10?
Straight after Green’s dismissal, England’s tactical and mental adjustment did affect the players, and despite the reprieve of Andriy Shevchenko’s missed penalty, England still managed to gift Ukraine the match-winner in a period of play where Capello’s imprint on the side looked nothing more than face value. However, half-time saw a quick turnaround and a far more assured performance from several of the team – Glen Johnson, for all the doubts surrounding him, still offered a great more going forward than most right-backs have in the past decade, including Gary Neville. Defensively when playing with nine or ten teammates, the Liverpool man leaves gaping holes at the back, enough to worry John Terry and Rio Ferdinand. As first-choice right-back, Johnson’s game will continue to be scrutinised throughout the season, but in a competition next summer where pace will give England their best chance of success, Johnson is more an asset than a liability. After all, when in form, Terry, Ferdinand and Ashley Cole are more than capable colleagues to have at the back alongside the youngster, and potentially that back-four is one of the best going into the competition. England has more often than not still restricted their opponents in qualifying to long shots and relying on fantastic mistakes to test Green and David James.
James Milner continues to impress in the international set-up after serving a full apprenticeship with the Under-21s. His professional and tireless approach to the play, plus the acute nature of his footwork makes for an encouraging alternative for England on the left. And he can provide a final ball. Joe Cole faces a tough nine months to break into the squad then. Emile Heskey once again performed admirably and selflessly through the game, but without Rooney right up in support, all his running and physicality did little to back up Capello’s choice of hauling off Aaron Lennon and moving Rooney to the right. Overall, the players united and the second half was assured and a great reaction to the disadvantage handed them. Despite the result, Saturday’s task was passed, with only some off-colour finishing from Frank Lampard and Rooney the difference between defeat and picking up points for the ten-men.
Which leads on to Wednesday’s Wayne-less Wembley test. Ukraine showed Rooney’s metal and determination for the side, whilst all through qualification, it has been Rooney linking up with Heskey, Rooney destroying the opponents on the left-wing with Gerrard and Rooney scoring the goals. Now that the player has pulled out of the squad ahead of the Belarus game, where does that leave England?
For one thing, it again highlight’s the country’s reliance on the striker and certainly without Rooney England face a tougher task, even with 11 men and even against inferior opposition in the form of Belarus. Eyes will shift to Lampard, Gerrard and most likely Jermain Defoe to step up to the task, perform together in a fluid way and crucially, get those goals. Ideally, tougher opposition would have stood England in far greater stead in terms of getting realistic (and comparable) results to how they play without Rooney, but this writer isn’t suggesting facing Brazil without the Manchester United man just to get that answer.
Relying on Rooney to provide the goods come 2010 isn’t a bad situation to be in. It is healthier than relying on some of the older individuals in the squad, or those more at risk of struggling to make the tournament through fitness. However, there is a chance that in (maybe) seven games next summer, some of the playing time will be without the mercurial No 10 on the pitch. Defoe is the name that immediately springs to mind to fill the goal-scoring boots, but how will his link-up play with the team’s other first-choice striker Heskey go? Defoe’s style of play demands greater support from his strike-partner and a higher level of distribution from midfield – be that in quantity or quality. Heskey’s ability down the years to play as that target man, to provide for the main striker, has been good enough for him to develop an international career out of. Michael Owen and now Rooney can testify his contribution to their statistics in the white shirt. Peter Crouch may be in with a finer chance of going to 2010 than we all think, should Heskey reveal he cannot provide for Defoe as well as he can for Rooney. Carlton Cole is likely to be given a good run-out in midweek too, and this is his real opportunity to show what he can offer the team in terms of goals and what he can offer Defoe in terms of support.
Two games, two tests – the examinations over this England squad have only just begun, but Capello and the players have an opportunity to answer two of the biggest questions in the space of five days. The pressure is on to continue the overall fine work from Saturday, and what’s competing at a World Cup without pressure?
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
– ECF – Calm before the storm – September 3, 2009
– Match Report
– England Analysis – Tepid dress rehearsal sparked by Defoe
September 9, 2009 – 20:00 – Wembley, London
England 5-1 Croatia – Lampard 8 (pen), 59, Gerrard 18, 66, Rooney 77 – Eduardo 73
– ECF – Rooney to meet his supposed mentor – September 8, 2009
– England Analysis – Sweet revenge for superb England
– ECF – England finds form, then more questions – September 12, 2009
October 10, 2009 – 17:15 – Dnipro Arena, Dnipropetrovsk