Fabio Capello took a bold step before this game in naming two genuine wide players in what was a clear statement of attacking intent. James Milner and Aaron Lennon are both dynamic players with a combination of speed and invention, so Capello was no doubt looking to them to stretch what is normally a well-organised American defence. That this plan did not have the desired impact was due to a multitude of factors.
Firstly, credit to United States right-back Steve Cherundolo, who was this writer’s man of the match, and took the initiative on at least one side of the pitch. Firstly, he handled Milner with ease, then he joined in American counter-attacks at every opportunity. This resulted in a series of fouls from the Aston Villa man which eventually earned him a booking and an early substitution after only 30 minutes. That the England goal had come from an opportunistic foray through the centre and some uncharacteristically poor concentration from the US defenders meant that in some ways the original question had been replaced by a different one – could the Americans get back into the game? When Robert Green’s appearance on the next bloopers DVD levelled the game, we were left with a second half in which the original task for England was again the one in hand – could the partnerships of Glen Johnson/Lennon and Ashley Cole/Shaun Wright Phillips unravel the US defence from the outside?
Early in the second period, Johnson and Lennon combined to good effect to produce a ball across the box that was inches behind the onrushing players. This should have been the catalyst for England to cut out the long balls to (the admittedly effective) Emile Heskey and deploy a more patient build-up. However, three problems prevented England from doing this. Firstly, the temptation of the cruise missile up to Heskey, and later on, Peter Crouch, was too much for England’s defenders in particular. Though Heskey won a good percentage of balls aerially, it was often a battle between Wayne Rooney and himself and the entire American back four. Had Lennon and Wright-Phillips operated 15 yards further up the pitch, this could have been an effective if unsophisticated tactic. As it was, all of England’s forwards were industrious and none had what could be called a bad game, but it appeared that England were often playing more in hope than anything else. Secondly, Cherundolo’s excellent performance meant the battle on England’s left side was a moral victory for the US. The Hannover ’96 man’s raids forward meant that Ashley Cole’s attacking threat was somewhat negated. Thirdly, the absence of a holding midfield player means that it is hard to make patient attacks. A natural defensive midfielder is there as an option from the wide players or the full-backs, and great players though they are, neither Frank Lampard nor Steven Gerrard are naturals in that position. The lack of a sideways ball often leaves the options of go back or go long, and England, with an understandable sense of urgency, went long time after time.
The frustration is that when Lennon and Johnson combined in particular, they did look dangerous and brought a threat which the American defence found incredibly difficult to deal with. For a spell at the start of the second period, Lennon’s speed threatened to take the game away from the US, and though a second England goal was not exactly inevitable, a genuine sense of pressure was building. However, a draw is far from a disaster here, and it is worth remembering that England would have won the game but for a moment that Green will hopefully be able to get over before they play Slovenia later this week. It was not a terrible England performance, and was indeed more positive than many of the efforts we have seen recently. No doubt Capello will be reminding his players that it is pointless him picking specific personnel if the players do not execute the game plan that goes with it.