England's First Team?
What a difference a game makes—or, rather, the difference between Competitive and Friendly Games.
On Saturday, England played Wales off the park in a crushing(!) 2-0 defeat, in a European Championship qualifying game. Tonight, seven changes later, they play a friendly against World Cup quarter-finalists Ghana.
I was worried before the Wales game, but tonight I’m indifferent if we lose; such has become the culture of International Friendlies.
After years of having pointless matches, unnecessary injuries, and over-used subs and captains, the friendly has become something to avoid rather than to be excited about.
Do we still need friendly matches?
I managed to keep a running diary of the Wales-England game, and while thinking about tonight’s friendly (and how potentially pointless it would be), I decided that the best way to compare the two levels of games was to do another running diary—contrasting the two games at various points.
To make it easier to read, diary entries from the Ghana game are in italics, the Wales game in standard text. Without further ado:
-45mins: I've just seen the England team, and there are seven changes. All of which I’m fine with. For once, I don’t want Crouchy and Defoe to play, they might get injured, and I've got more important things to worry about, like Real Madrid in the Champions League.
Is there any merit to International Friendly matches?
-6mins: Where’s Crouchy? After watching the Cricket World Cup, this is my first look at the team, and my first thought is Where’s Crouchy? I’m slightly surprised at Darren Bent's starting the game, but he’s more on form than Defoe, so the surprise slinks away fairly easily. They flip to the substitutes, and Peter Crouch’s name is conspicuous in it’s absence. I’m sure that Andy Carroll will lead the England line in future, but he’s coming back from injury, and Peter Crouch has long been the super-sub. I know it’s "only Wales," and the Golden Boy Gareth Bale is injured, but I’m not taking anything for granted. I’d have preferred Peter Crouch on the bench.
2mins: Ghana! It’s a friendly! No need for the attempted leg-breaks at midfield; although if we’re going to keep over-hitting balls like the Ashley Young free kick, fouling could be a legitimate defensive plan.
6mins: Those boos are having no effect, but lets face it: Terry and Cole should be used to it by now. Apart from Stamford Bridge, there isn't a single stadium in the land where they’re not greeted by that. Even at Wembley, the boo-boys are in force. In fact, you’d probably put them off by cheering for them. Their combined forward runs have put Ashley Young through, who falls over after a clumsy James Collins tackle. Come on James, you play against him in training; you should know his tricks! Not that I care, a weakly-taken Frank Lampard penalty rolls into the goal, 1-0 to England.
8mins: Whatever happened to England B internationals? I only ask because, on paper, this is an England B team. Leighton Baines? Maybe it’s me, but he reminds of the bad old days, the days of Geoff Thomas, Andy Hinchcliffe; and Stewart Downing has just done his best impression of those ‘Gloryhole Years’ by shanking his shot wide right despite being through on goal. Thanks, Andy Carroll; your first touch just reminded me of Michael Ricketts.
13mins: Lampard looks odd in a number seven shirt—why couldn't Wilshere have that number? Is this Capello’s way of trying to stamp his authority? "You’re on borrowed time now, Frank, the number eight is Jack’s shirt until further notice"
14mins : Enough number talk. A beautifully placed long pass from Glen Johnson to Ashley Young, one touch to square it to an unmarked Darren Bent, and he slams it home. I did think it was going to go over, but he got it high enough over the keeper and into the roof of the net. We may not need Crouchy after all, but I’m guessing Defoe has got a "Hargreaves-esque" "It should have been me!" face.
22mins: Seriously, what has happened in training? If we were passing like this last summer, we could have won the World Cup. We’re passing the ball out rather than hoof-clearing it.
23mins: Ashley Young, who has clearly played his away out of Aston Villa, has just hit the bar from two yards out. After that miss, he has just played himself to Liverpool’s bench.
25mins: For all the practicing that professional footballers do, you’d think they would spend some time on corners. One in four make the center of the box; the rest rely on flick-ons at the near post.
27mins: Martin Tyler just commented on Lampard wearing the number seven shirt and how awkward it looks—14 minutes too late, Martin.
26mins: The Ghanaians are drawing, yet partying like it’s Mardi Gras. Wales, this is what you needed on Saturday. Joe Hart has just made an epic reflex save, which, again, Wales, you needed to do on Saturday.
36mins: Two mistakes in two minutes. First, the England supporters sing "God Save The Queen," which usually I would be up for hearing, but it has just woken a slumbering Welsh crowd. The boos ring out again, and they are back behind their faltering team. Then, Wayne Rooney lashes out with an ill-timed tackle and has gotten himself booked. You may as well put the bullseye on him now; they’ll be gunning to try and get him his second.
33mins: Ghana look dangerous when they want to attack. When they want to…
34mins: So, there’s been no England B games since 2007, and they’ve only really played as World Cup Warm-ups. Did you know that Bedford Jezzard is the highest scorer in England B history? Six goals in three matches; how have I not heard of Bedford?
45mins: Half an attempt by Morrison is easily turned away by England, and nearly countered. The first half peters out into a dull long-ball game—roll on the second half.
46mins: Start as you finished, and even though Wales kicked off, England’s crisp passing has them attacking again. Wilshere is looking incredibly comfortable, and reassuringly for a qualifying match, he looks like he’s having fun.
45mins: I admit it, I saw the goal, but drifted off to sleep soon after. On the plus side, I just missed all of the halftime chat from ITV. The marauding Glen Johnson has been replaced by Jolean Lescott, so the midfield are going to work even harder. Well, Jack Wilshere listened to me, but Ashley Young flashes another final ball off target.
49mins: For a friendly, some fierce tackles are being thrown about. I’ll admit, it’s quite refreshing to see, but that may be because none of my players are involved in it.
51mins: Hey, it’s James Milner again! Where were you hiding? At the moment, he’s the anti-Wilshere.
55mins: Another booking; bit light, but Andrew Crofts lets Jack Wilshere knows he’s there—about 55 minutes later than he should have.
57mins: This is getting FIFA-Esque, quick passes around the computer players, with a through-ball just too far ahead of the sprinting striker. Dare I mention Barcelona? Isn't it sad that I’m comparing an international side to a club team?
60mins: First yellow for Derek Boateng, for trying to hurdle a standing James Milner. Milner isn’t affected by the swift kick to the head, and fizzes a shot towards the corner, only for Kingson to palm it away. Fourth time I've seen Milner today.
62mins: Ayew with a needless late challenge; earns him a yellow card four minutes after coming on. He seems up for it, although I’m not sure why. He’s a decent enough player and should walk into the Ghana team.
64mins: Kudos to Leighton Baines; he’s playing without shoes. Not sure why he isn't booted up, but Shoeless Leighton B is a smart nickname.
71mins: Wales have a minute of good play before it’s broken up again. Another minute, another chance—and they get their first corner of the game! In the 72nd minute! And it’s wasted as it goes over everyone's head and runs out for a throw-in.
75mins: Another corner leads to a third, which goes straight to Joe Hart. I honestly think he’s had less than 10 touches all game.
69mins: Capello signals for 4-3-3, and England respond by sticking to their 4-4-2.
71mins: Okay, now they’re moving to 4-3-3.
73mins: Milner attempts to perform emergency surgery on the back of Asamoah Gyans' leg, and gets a yellow card for his troubles. Ghana have a free kick, almost dead-center about 10 yards outside the area. After an age of theatrics, it sails harmlessly wide.
79: Jagielka has awkwardly hurt his knee, so to lighten the situation Richard Kingson slices a ball into the stands. Ashley Young comes off, to well-earned applause, and is replaced by Danny Welbeck and a chorus of boos from the Ghanaians in the crowd. You can see the consequences of his "betrayal" etched in his face.
86mins: Seven bookings; most of them pretty light, and, on another day, might not have been given. This is probably what the Welsh team have been missing.
90mins: Wow. At least three times in Asamoah Gyans' run I thought he should have passed it, and yet, his masterful control, lovely turn, and brilliant stroking the ball past Joe Hart has given him the goal that he, and Ghana, deserve.
92mins: It’s all over. Thankfully for Wales, thoroughly outplayed by a superior England team. Would Gareth Bale have helped? Probably; Aaron Ramsey tried his best in the second half, but with no teammates who did much else. Apart from a powerful wayward shot, and for all his posturing, Bellamy was ineffective, he’d have done more to fire up the crowd by being sent off. This really wasn't a game, it was a glorified training exercise for England; just with a period of intense booing.
92mins: I can’t remember the last time I heard Wembley roar like it does now, especially after a friendly match. After sitting through some dross on Saturday, tonight’s game was a pleasant surprise. A wonderful game of football; a draw befitting of both sides.
I’ll admit it, I picked the wrong two games to do a diary on. Or maybe the right two; the Wales "competitive" game had the pace and passion of a friendly, whereas tonight’s exhibition against Ghana—which most people thought would be a lazy stroll in the park—was anything from it.
I was pleasantly surprised by the game, where pride shone through. Yes it was a friendly, but neither team would've been satisfied by lessons learned from a defeat.
Many have questioned the validity of International Friendlies, but if they are played with the pace and passion of tonight’s game, then certainly there is a place for them in the international calendar.