Poland vs. England: 6 Things We Learned from World Cup Qualifier
So at last the roof was closed and Roy Hodgson learned some more about his new England charges, but the players showed they hadn't learned enough from the Boss.
They say that great teams grind out results when they are not playing well. So now we know that England aren't that great.
England's FIFA ranking continues to astound some people. A month ago they were third in the world. This month they are fifth; Brazil are 14th and Poland 54th.
Tonight, England made Poland look much better than they were, especially since they were lacking their best player and captain, Blaszczykowski. They also fielded a defender with 45 minutes previous international experience and a goalkeeper who can't even get a start for his club side.
And yet, apart from Rooney's "shouldered" header, England looked unlikely to break Poland down. The longer the game went on, the more encouraged—and the more likely to win—the home side became.
How could this happen? Roy Hodgson is no mug as an international coach. Despite Fabio Capello's greater experience and Latin background, the England manager has done more to get his Anglo-Saxons playing technical football than his predecessor.
This was particularly evident in the match against San Marino last Friday. The trouble was that when England needed an old-fashioned approach with wingers and a big striker (step forward Andy Carroll), they tried to pass the ball through a brick wall.
That performance against arguably the worst team in the world was one of England's worst. OK they won 5-0 but Germany would have run up a cricket score against 11 men playing without any ambition.
It was best summed up by the sight of Kyle Walker, the exciting young Tottenham right back. He must have overlapped his winger about 50 times and received the ball. Against a part-time left back, instead of "skinning him" and putting in a cross from the bye-line, 48 times he simply passed the ball back.
And this sums up England at their worst. Collectively they often don't have the vision, ambition and skill to break down ordinary teams who have a determination to hold out.
So it was against Poland. For Roy Hodgson it must have felt like deja vu. All that he inherited was on display, despite one of the strongest sides he could field and the obvious deficiencies of the home side. They forgot his instructions to hold onto the ball and technical skill went out of the window.
So some of what we learned, we already knew. It's just that we continue to delude ourselves that one day...some day...England can win a major tournament.
The truth is that even if some of these things were resolved, that isn't going to happen any time soon, or even in my lifetime.
England Cannot Sit on a Lead
Something wasn't quite right with Wayne Rooney tonight. Maybe it was because Poland had targeted him as the key player, or because his role had changed from that of when he was captain last Friday.
Yes, he scored the only goal and looked sharp at times, but his passing was off. In the end, he was asked to cover for Ashley Cole on the left before being taken off after 70 minutes.
Even though he was replaced by Oxlade-Chamberlain, you would have thought Rooney, as one of England's key offensive players, would have been kept on.
In fact there was a massive difference in England's play from five days previously. Of course it's easier to play against a team without ambition who never leave their own half of the pitch. But surely against a side ranked 54th in the world you would expect them to show more enterprise.
It starts with the coach. Preposterously, one of the England players last week uttered yet again the mantra that "there aren't any easy matches and we have to respect the opposition." Why? Do we honestly believe the Germans think that? Or the Spanish?
So it started with Roy Hodgson playing only Defoe up front. What message does that send to the opposition coach? And because the England manager didn't change his team from the previous night, his opposite number had all that time to plan the tactics.
Defoe was largely ineffectual. England scored against the run of the game thanks to a bit of fortune for Rooney, and the result should have been a forgone conclusion. Instead they tried to hold onto the lead, hoping for a counter-attack.
They slipped deeper and deeper, and the Polish wide players, particularly down the right, were able to push them further into their own box.
The trouble is that, although the England defence is well-organised with competent players like Lescott and Cole, you always have the feeling that sooner or later someone will make a mistake or a speculative shot will fly in.
The truth is that against even a side ranked 54th, England can't be relied on to hold onto a lead. The more they sat back, the more the Poles were encouraged, and it became a vicious circle.
And Andy Carroll wasn't the answer either. They had already tried lobbing balls in front of Defoe, and that hadn't worked. They should have started with Welbeck, as he showed as soon as he came on. Danny would have put away the shot that Defoe mishit.
For whatever reason, Hodgson decided he wanted to rely on his senior professionals. Milner, OK, because Walcott is out and Lennon was poor against San Marino. Milner puts in a stint. But one thing he brings to the table is the ability to defend.
So against San Marino you send out an enterprising young team to try and dismantle a blanket defence. But when you need a win against Poland you send out a team that won't let you down. A team that will play deeper and deeper to cling onto a lead.
And what happens? Your best and most reliable player lets you down. Possibly the best goalkeeper in the world makes an error of judgement, charging out of his goal because he can see what is going on around him and tries to sort it out himself.
England can't be relied on to hold onto a lead. There are other problems as well and one solution is to move on to the next generation.
England's Technical Skills Simply Aren't Good Enough
Its all very well when you play against San Marino. You can make two thousand passes without hardly being threatened or giving the ball away, especially when the opposition has no intention of trying to win. They were simply trying to avoid being buried.
But Poland were always going to try and win, harry, tackle, pass and run.
They were also going to try and control the midfield and raid down the wings. They have arguably one of the best strikers in Europe in Lewandowski.
England were complacent and sloppy. They had the chance to control the match, play it at their own pace and wear the Poles down. But they started with the wrong team, the wrong formation and the wrong attitude.
No doubt someone, somewhere, will say that the pitch wasn't good enough; bumpy; no pace; unpredictable.
So why is it that other teams, lesser teams even, can play good football and pass effectively on bumpy pitches? Answer: It comes down to the technical skills in English football.
This is why the St Georges initiative is vital, even though it may take five to ten years. Most of the teams in the top 20 in world football have better basic skills than England.
This was a pitch that demanded crisp, short passes. Instead the usually reliable Carrick, Gerrard and others resorted to a longer ball too often. Yes, a chipped ball into space would have settled on the surface, but if we're resorting to kick and rush football with only one hit-man we're going backwards.
So England gave the ball away far too often and invited the opposition on. Worse still, their first touch was awful. Even on a dodgy pitch an instinctive first touch is a reasonable expectation from a team ranked fifth in the world.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, however, because there is a new generation of players coming through from the major Premier League Academies (and others, like Southampton) who have had those basic technical skills instilled into them from the age of 10. That's also what St Georges will do.
It's Time for the Old Guard to Be Pensioned off
Gradually we're moving on.
Team GB showed the way forward. Although it is in the Olympic rules that the football teams should be largely under 23, they did much better than many people would have expected.
Some of those players are being fast-tracked into the England squad of the future. Tom Cleverley recovered his pre-injury form from last season during that tournament. He now looks like a fixture in the England set-up for years to come.
Of the Team GB squad, Jack Butland, Ryan Bertrand, Steven Caulker, Daniel Sturridge and Micah Richards have all been called up for England, as well as Tom Cleverley. Jonjo Shelvey and Raheem Sterling weren't even at the Olympics and they are being given their chance. Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have already arrived.
To some this might smack of desperation or an injury crisis, but that is not to understand Roy Hodgson's intentions. He has already made clear, for example, that Rio Ferdinand will be too old for Rio, Brazil in 2014.
So was it an error of judgement to play the "Old Guard" against Poland, relying on them for a result? Or were they in the last chance saloon?
The rest of this season may see Sir Alex Ferguson turning to Tom Cleverley and Anderson more than Scholes and Carrick, for example.
Tom Cleverley was given his fifth cap tonight and once again was among the pick of the players. His energy, determination and desperation to use the ball effectively and not give it away showed the way forward.
On the other hand, Ashley Cole looked to have no legs left. Time and time again he was left for dead. Leighton Baines must have been biting through his tongue in frustration. He has been possibly the best player in the Premier League this season.
Joleon Lescott did OK, but he also isn't possessed with lightning pace. How long before Micah Richards replaces him for City and England, especially now John Terry is gone?
Jermain Defoe may be a classic "sniffer" of goals, but he showed why he has been little more than a substitute for England and Spurs for years. Danny Welbeck should have started.
Even the usually reliable Michael Carrick looked largely ineffectual and couldn't keep the ball. The sooner Jack Wilshere is fit the better.
And finally, James Milner sums up the backward thinking that characterised tonight's largely sterile performance. So, Walcott was out injured and Lennon is hopeless for England. Why did Roy Hodgson not take a risk and start with either Oxlade-Chamberlain or Raheem Sterling?
They say that attack is the best form of defence. Pragmatism had to be the way forward when England came up against Italy in Euro 2012, but against a Polish side without two of their best players and fielding a makeshift defence, Roy Hodgson made possibly the first tactical blunder of his short reign.
Time to move on...
Steven Gerrard Is World Class
For those who don't know it, or won't accept it, Steven Gerrard is possibly one of only a couple of England players who are genuinely world class.
Ashley Cole may have been; Rooney at his best undoubtedly is; Joe Hart may one day truly be world class, but his self-confidence can spill over into apparent arrogance. He has nothing to be arrogant about after tonight's immature gaffe that cost an undeserved win.
So Gerrard wasn't perfect, but it is entirely right that he should have the armband until he no longer merits a place in the team.
It was a shock to himself, let alone England supporters, when Gerrard and the other members of the so-called "golden generation" failed to turn up in the 2010 World Cup. Maybe on reflection we can blame Fabio Capello for that.
The fact is that Gerrard is single-handedly keeping alive the hopes that Liverpool may one day return to the Top Four in the Premier League. He gives everything, every match. He can be truly inspirational, as he was on that glorious night in Istanbul.
With Carrick behind him, he is able to drive forward and lead his team from the front. Unfortunately tonight his team simply wasn't up to the task. Rooney huffed and puffed enough (especially in defence) to suggest that when the two of them are playing together England can win almost any match.
So it was that, playing together for only the second time since that fateful World Cup, Rooney scored from Gerrard's corner. If their colleagues had been better, we could have seen why these two can take England a long way in Rio.
And yes that does mean that Gerrard is the one exception to the "Old Guard" retirement plan. He's that good. When his legs lose half a yard he can simply step back into the role Michael Carrick is playing at the moment and let the younger legs of Cleverley and Wilshere do the hard work in front of him.
Robert Lewandowski Is Worth the Money
There have been plenty of rumours that Manchester United and others are interested in Lewandowski.
Based on what we saw this evening, it is easy to see why. It is also thought that Sir Alex may have had him in mind if he hadn't been able to land Robin Van Persie. Lewandowski isn't as good as the Dutchman yet, but he is still only 24.
He has led the Borussia Dortmund line to the Bundesliga title, and he did the same for Poland tonight.
In contrast to most of his opponents, his first touch is excellent. He wins most balls in the air, makes and finishes chances and is sharp in general.
England marshaled him well enough to keep him from scoring, but he looked a class and a half better than Jermain Defoe and much more mature than Welbeck, who is only two years younger. He looked dangerous whenever the ball came close to him.
If their midfield general is back for the Wembley return, England will have to be their sharpest best against a Poland side that in general is quite ordinary but has a striker who can make something out of nothing.
Falcao may be the hottest property on the planet at the moment, and Atletico Madrid may want as much as 50 million Euros for him. Lewandowski would be a bargain at 30 million on this form.
England Should Walk the Group
Despite all that we've said before, England should still comfortably win their World Cup Group.
In his short time as England manager, Roy Hodgson has already made some bold decisions. Calling up Raheem Sterling and Steven Caulker is a statement of intent. Playing Tom Cleverley in every match is a sign of things to come.
Even if most of the "Old Guard" is moved aside, there is still more than enough experience to build a young side around. Apart from Gerrard (whose next cap will be his 100th), Rooney has 78 caps, and even Joe Hart has 26 already. Phil Jagielka may only have 16, but he has a wealth of experience at Everton, as does Leighton Baines.
Montenegro may be top of the Group at the turn of the year, but they are ranked 42nd, Ukraine 44th, Moldova 145th and San Marino bottom of the 207 teams in the FIFA rankings.
So England can make things as hard as they want if they "don't underestimate the opposition."
Or they can tear into the opposition with a team that might be as follows:
Johnson, Jagielka, Richards, Baines
Walcott, Gerrard, Cleverley, Oxlade-Chamberlain
The most difficult match now should be Ukraine away. With England finishing with three home matches out of the last four next Autumn, surely they can't blow that chance.
There were more than enough lessons to be learned and pointers to the future in the last five days. Roy Hodgson is a great technical coach and seems mighty amiable, but he has a streak of ruthlessness. He can be relied on to make the right calls, taking England all the way to Rio (but without Rio...)
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