A 3-1 win over a talented but rather unappreciated Mexico side should be greeted as a categorical success. But the unconvincing performance that accompanied it dampened the result somewhat on a mixed night for England in the Three Lions’ penultimate
Johnson – Ferdinand – King – Baines
Walcott – Carrick – Milner – Gerrard
Crouch – Rooney
The starting line-up Fabio Capello opted for was relatively predictable, but the absence of the FA Cup final participants – Frank Lampard, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Joe Cole and David James – at least enforced a few changes and initial glimpses at various players looking to cement their place on the plane to South Africa. One of those, Ledley King, who came in for Terry, and who has been on the end of national praise for the past month or so somewhat summed up England on the night. His goal – off the back of some rather generous defending from the visitors – was a highlight, but the Tottenham Hotspur man had an altogether sluggish night, and had Robert Green to thank not once but twice for sparing his blushes following defensive absentmindedness. It is fair to say King did show what he is capable of at the same time, with his clever reading of the game, and his pace being a major asset, but on the world stage sloppy defending will be punished and those are the moments that get remembered.
On the mention of Green, and the goalkeeping situation on the whole, last night was a nice treat for all those wary England fans continuously worrying over this summer’s occupants of those ‘golden’ gloves. Green pulled of one particularly remarkable save to deny Carlos Vela when through on goal, while making various other solid contributions in his first half stint. Replaced by Manchester City’s talented but inexperienced stopper Joe Hart for the second half, he too did himself no harm, mainly showing his superb handling not only of the ball, but of the enormity of the challenge of becoming England’s No 1 on a huge night in his young career.
Another who impressed was Glen Johnson. Often criticised for his casual defending, last night saw him not only turn in an accomplished defensive display but also impress with his devilish attacking play we all know he possesses. His stunning solo goal rounded off an excellent night for England’s first choice right-back. On the opposite flank, Leighton Baines – another to benefit from Chelsea’s FA Cup final exploits – did little to assert himself as Ashley Cole’s immediate back up. In a straight fight with Stephen Warnock, and seemingly winning at present, Baines looked shaky last night, especially in the first half when Steven Gerrard offered him little in the way of protection down the left. The second half switch which saw James Milner occupy the left-side midfield slot certainly helped Baines, but unfortunately for the Everton man, Gerrard is a sure thing in that berth, and Ashley Cole’s brilliant covering and solidarity in that position is something England hugely rely on.
Whilst on the subject, Gerrard’s left side role continues to divide opinion. Many believe he should be centrally focused more towards England’s attack, while others – including Capello – believe his berth on the left of midfield offers more balance and gives the Liverpool man enough freedom to express his undoubted talent. In recent months, the prospect of a Gerrard in behind Wayne Rooney attack has been mooted on countless occasions – largely thanks to Rooney proving his adeptness at leading the line on his own this season – but its an option Capello has yet to test, and is unlikely to now the World Cup is so close. On paper it looks a desirable option, but while Gerrard may thrive in such a role, Rooney’s ability to drop off and get involved in play further down the field will be sacrificed, as will a target man for the Manchester United striker to feed off. In addition, Gerrard has been rather off colour this campaign while Rooney has been the exact opposite, so sacrificing some of his best abilities in order to bring Gerrard’s out is perhaps not on the menu at present. However, while that option is not at the forefront of the England Head Coach’s mind, the half-time switch of Milner and Gerrard, and the ensuing better second half performance may have raised an eyebrow. The side were undoubtedly a better passing prospect with Gerrard centrally and this was a major factor in the improved display after the break. Unfortunately for Gerrard, Lampard will resume duties centrally, and that means he will again be used out wide – let’s not even venture into the Gerrard-Lampard midfield conundrum.
The pair’s midfield partner, Michael Carrick did little to appease the circling critics. His poor season at United has seen his place in the squad under real jeopardy, and his lackadaisical display last night showed no signs of him returning to the form of a few years ago. With Gareth Barry’s injury diagnosis due later today, Capello may well have an altogether bigger gap to fill than he would have liked if Barry is indeed ruled out. Another source of frustration remains Theo Walcott. It has to be said, last night was his best display for the Three Lions in a long time, but although producing some threatening runs, his final ball continues to let him and his teammates down. However, Capello is clearly a fan, and his lightning pace dictates he will always be a threat, meaning he is likely to be on the plane to South Africa. Aaron Lennon will surely be the starting right winger – his pace and trickery, along with a much improved end product means his duel will Walcott is ultimately a non-contest.
And so we look to Sunday’s game with Japan in Austria for yet more questions – and perhaps even a few answers too. One thing is for sure, better ball retention still rides high on Capello’s list of requirements. We can now add Mexico to the long list of sides who have come to Wembley and out-passed this England team. Think of the likes of Spain and Brazil given that kind of possession, and the mind really does worry what they will do with it.
England 3-1 Mexico – King 17, Crouch 34, Glen Johnson 47 – Franco 45
England: Green (Hart 46), Glen Johnson, Ferdinand (Carragher 46), King, Baines, Walcott (Lennon 77), Gerrard, Carrick (Huddlestone 61), Milner (Adam Johnson 85), Crouch (Defoe 46), Rooney
Mexico: Perez, Juarez, Aguilar (Barrera 52), Marquez, Salcido, Osorio, Torrado, Rodriguez, Giovani (Blanco 72), Franco (Hernandez 46), Vela (Guardado 62)