Decent performance from England as Capello experiments with new systems
A nervous performance, but overall a deserved win and a decent night for England in their first game since their embarrassing exit from the World Cup against Germany.
The result and performance will largely be ignored in the mainstream media, thanks to the news that David Beckham’s England career is supposedly over. The determination to not give Capello or England any praise whatsoever means that the ‘announcement’ was superbly timed – no need to focus on what actually happened on the pitch.
As much as the news that a 35-year-old who is recovering from the most serious injury of his career, who is playing in a weak league, and who has only started one competitive game in the two-and-a-half years Capello has been in charge won’t be considered for international football is a huge shock, the current England players actually did quite well.
The biggest positive was not the performances of individuals, but the fact that Capello is clearly looking past the rigid shape that England played throughout their awful World Cup campaign, in favour of slightly more fluid, flexible systems. Last night England used three distinct systems – first 4-3-3, then a 4-2-3-1 / 4-4-2, and then a standard 4-2-3-1. The differences between those last two may seem slight, but when the central player in the band of ‘3′ is first a forward, Wayne Rooney, and then a midfielder, Steven Gerrard, there is a clear shift in the way the team operates.
The 4-3-3 in the first half was good – England kept the ball much better than they did at the World Cup – this may have been against a weak side, but then Algeria and Slovenia are hardly world-beaters, and England struggled with the basic task of keeping possession against those two.
The extra man in midfield clearly helped – Gerrard played deeper than we might have expected, dropping back on the left side of midfield to pick up the ball from deep, but also making late runs to link up with Rooney. Lampard did OK to the right of the midfield triangle, and Gareth Barry occupied something approaching a holding role, although the three midfielders were flexible and alternated their positions nicely.
Theo Walcott was the brightest player in the first half, as England played with two natural wingers on their natural sides. This stretched the play, although left Rooney isolated upfront, often the only man in the box when Walcott got into crossing positions.
Adam Johnson is not naturally a player who gets into goalscoring positions, but the one time he did so created England’s best chance – Walcott pulled the ball back for him, but he blasted over the bar from on the penalty spot. This – and England’s relative lack of goalscoring opportunities for the rest of the half – showed that you need your wingers to get into central positions when the ball is coming in from the opposite side of the pitch, and the main concern ab0ut playing this sort of 4-3-3 would be a reliance on goals from Rooney, especially with Gerrard playing so deep.
4-2-3-1 / 4-4-2
After half-time, England switched to something much more like their qualification shape. Rooney was deployed just behind Bobby Zamora, who is favourite for the ‘big man’ role Emile Heskey previously filled. Capello wants a player like this to hold the ball up, if not permanently in the starting XI, at least to be part of a plan B. Zamora is a better choice than Peter Crouch in terms of his all-round game, simply because this is the role he actually plays at club level – holding the ball up for midfield runners. Peter Crouch, whilst a better goalscorer, is not much of a hold-up player.
Another interesting feature was that when Ashley Young replaced Walcott, he played on the left, with Johnson moving to the right – the same positions both occupied at club level last season. This is Capello’s first experiment with the inverted wingers craze that was so popular last season, and in theory should be effective with a hold-up player – the wingers are more likely to come inside and provide options for him. Young linked nicely with Zamora, in particular.
England conceded a disappointing goal following Michael Dawson’s mistake, and Capello opted to withdraw Rooney – who was quiet – and introduced James Milner, who played in the centre of midfield alongside Gareth Barry. This moved Gerrard further forward, and had an instant impact – Gerrard turned the game around with two magnificent goals – first a long-range dipping strike, then a tremendous piece of skill to get past three defenders and poke home. This was the first time Gerrard had been deployed in his favoured role (in the playmaker role in a 4-2-3-1) under Capello, and it would be a surprise if he doesn’t star there in the qualifiers.
The other point of interest was the performance of Kieran Gibbs on his England debut, who got up and down the line well, showing good skill on the ball. Indeed, he was probably better on the night than Ashley Cole, although there is no case for saying he should be included ahead of Cole in the next game. But the pertinent point here is not the individual performances, but the fact that Gibbs was more impressive because he had more space to exploit. He played behind Ashley Young, who drifted inside immediately and created space on the overlap. Cole was behind Adam Johnson, who hugged the touchline to a greater extent. One positive from playing Gerrard on the left in World Cup qualifiers was the fact it allowed Cole forward, with the left-footed Barry offering cover from a central midfield position. It would be a shame to lose that outlet.
A no-win game for Capello – if he had lost it would have been an embarrassment, but the victory will be downplayed as being recorded against a poor side.
But that misses the point – the major criticism from the World Cup was that England were too rigid and didn’t have a plan B. Capello’s desire to try out new formations and different combinations of players shows that he has learnt lessons from the World Cup.
It wasn’t a vintage performance like Brazil’s victory over the US – there was still relatively little movement and Rooney’s form is a concern. But, from a friendly where the major talking point before the match was how much England would be booed, it went as well as could be expected – even the boos had stopped by full-time.Decent performance from England as Capello experiments with new systems