On June 18 at this summer’s World Cup finals in South Africa, England played out a desperate goalless draw with the unfancied outfit Algeria, leaving any optimism for the rest of the tournament in tatters. It was a day where toothless attacks and misplaced passes were aplenty, a trick that was repeated last night as Montenegro took a point from Wembley in an altogether uninspiring encounter.
G.Johnson – Ferdinand – Lescott – Cole
A.Johnson – Gerrard – Barry – Young
Crouch – Rooney
This was a performance that lacked in everything from creativity to genuine verve and slickness. Where attacks were merely laboured or, in the main, hopeful punts up towards the big striker. Coming up against a side of the calibre of Montenegro at Wembley means one thing – a team focused solely towards getting men behind the ball and crowding out attacks. The visitors were never going to be adventurous in the slightest, and who would blame them – they came to Wembley to do a job on the Three Lions, and it was a job well done.
For England, this was yet more evidence of how not to unlock a disciplined defence. The staggering amount of times Steven Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand lofted 50-60 yard passes towards Peter Crouch, and his replacement, Kevin Davies was ridiculous. The team seemed happy to loft hopeful balls into the strikers, or give the ball to one of the wingers in the hope they would beat a man and do something special. It was difficult to see if Gerrard was playing central midfield, or was assigned the role of quarterback. He also seemed to be tied to Ferdinand at times, often taking the ball of the Manchester United man’s toes, in order to pump another long ball forward. The space between the central defenders and central midfielders was none existent and it just meant no-one was getting in behind their midfielders in order to link play or create openings.
Almost all of England’s play was played out in front of their opposition. The Montenegrins were more than happy for Gerrard and Gareth Barry to take the ball from the defenders on the halfway line – or behind – as there next point of contact was the strikers. It left the strikers desperately isolated and starved of any real service or interplay. Gerrard is outstanding at driving through the midfield area, getting beyond the opposition, but he barely ventured anywhere near such dangerous areas. The side were set up in an attacking formation – two wingers, two strikers, two adventurous full-backs and an attack-minded central midfielder – but the actual onus on getting these players in the right areas was non-existent.
Wayne Rooney will no doubt get some stick for another patchy display, but to be fair to the former Everton forward, his game was to act as a second striker, dropping off the main striker, which was Crouch, and pick up the ball in space in front of the back four. However, as the central midfielders were so deep, he simply had no chance of creating any space in order to receive the ball in a threatening area. The supply line was just too far away, and he was surrounded by four or five Montenegrins if he wanted the ball.
If England wanted to really break through last night, they needed quick, incisive passing, with full-backs and midfielders looking to get ahead of the play. It’s easy to play in front of a line of players, but to play through requires quality and confidence, along with ambition and positivity in moving the ball quickly. Instead, England’s game-plan seemed to involve lumping long balls to Crouch in the hope he would flick something on that would result in an opening. It was painfully crass, and it’s a way of playing that has seen this country lag behind in terms of playing the beautiful game. No-one expects the side to go out and play Barcelona-esque football, but simply moving the ball at a pace that would create gaps and move defenders around isn’t too much to ask from these players.
A draw isn’t a disaster for the team, and qualification is still in a reasonably healthy state, however, if England are to progress, not just into the tournament, but through the tournament itself, they will need to show far more quality than they did at Wembley last night. Its basics, and its football that the side are capable of playing, but whether they are discouraged from doing so, or perhaps don’t have the confidence when donning the Three Lions, it’s quite simply not happening.
England: Hart – Glen Johnson, Ferdinand, Lescott, Ashley Cole – Adam Johnson, Gerrard, Barry, Young (Wright-Phillips, 74) – Rooney, Crouch (Davies, 69)
Montenegro: Mladen Bozovic – Basa, Jovanovic, Djudovic, Savic – Vukcevic, Zverotic, Boskovic (Beciraj, 82), Novakovic (Kascelan, 62), Pekovic – Djalovic (Delibasic, 77)