Observations of England U-21 Friendly Against Slovenia
• I was disappointed to see how many empty seats there were at Hull City’s KC Stadium. I know this was only a friendly, but come on. These players are the future of England’s national team, and the already small stadium wasn’t even half-full to watch them.
• I liked the 4-3-3 employed by Pearce. He showed some tactical flexibility by adapting the formation to suit his players rather than fit players into a predetermined formation, which too many international head coaches are guilty of. He then moved to a 4-4-2 when he introduced Fraizer Campbell on the hour, again demonstrating his willingness to change things around.
• I’m not entirely sure why Aston Villa’s Gabriel Agbonlahor wasn’t in the starting lineup. He’s coming off a perfect hat trick in seven minutes against Manchester City, and it isn’t just that – he played well in Villa’s European games before the league season kicked off. Matt Derbyshire, who can barely get a game at Blackburn, got the start ahead of Agbonlahor. The match commentator made the point that Agbonlahor was getting some “extensive treatment” for his groin on the field during warm-ups, so I would have to assume that that was the reasoning behind the decision to sit the pacey young striker.
• Nedum Onouha played center back even though he’s a better fit on the right with his blistering speed, and his Manchester City teammate Micah Richards played right back even though he plays in the center for the club. Again, it’s an assumption, but England U-21 manager Stuart Pearce probably knows he can’t count on having Richards for much longer, so the greater benefit to his team would be playing Onouha where he normally plays for the Young Lions instead of shifting him over to accommodate Richards, who is fully capable at right back. Richards’ future with the senior national team is probably at right back anyway.
• Michael Mancienne looked OK at center back. He’s on loan from Chelsea, where he’ll probably never feature, at QPR, where he’s one of the team’s best players. He seemed very calm and composed, especially under pressure, but he did back off and give Slovenia’s attackers too much room to operate at times. He was burnt badly by a through ball on Slovenia’s only goal as well.
• Derbyshire violated a cardinal rule of the game – play until the whistle blows – when he stopped on a dime, threw his hands up, and turned around at the referee when he did not award a PK in the 15th minute for a questionable tackle in the area. Derbyshire went down, popped back up, and didn’t pursue the ball. If he would have, Slovenia may not have been able to clear it. Yes, it should’ve been a penalty, but once it’s not called, it’s not going to be called. Don’t complain about it while the play is still going on.
• West Ham’s Mark Noble and City’s Michael Johnson (in the hour he played) really bossed the midfield. Both are regulars for their respective clubs, so I’d expect nothing less against the inferior Slovenian side.
• England did a good job winning their set pieces in the air, particularly Richards, who hit the post with a header off a corner kick early in the game and picked up his own rebound (which also came off a header) and scored a tap-in in the 25th minute. Richards was superb in the air all game long, looking like a man against boys. Onouha also looked lively.
• Tom Huddlestone was shaky in open play, especially in the first 30 minutes. To be fair to him, he hasn’t really gotten and isn’t going to get an extended run in Tottenham’s first team, and the rust was clearly evident. He had trouble passing the ball early and was constantly giving it away, both on the dribble and with his passes. He did play a nice through ball to Noble at the beginning of the second half, though Noble didn’t do anything with it. His play steadily improved as the game went on, which is a good sign. He also delivered some dangerous set pieces.
• James Milner’s terrific finish bailed out his bumbling and stumbling on the pass that led to his goal, the game-winner. The U-21 captain battled the same problem yesterday as he has for most of his career: inconsistency.
• The substitutes used by Pearce – Campbell, Michael Kightly, Fabrice Muamba, Martin Cranie, David Wheater, and Adam Johnson – were a mixed bag. Johnson was impressive and showed best out of those six. Kightly picked it up after he moved to the right wing. Campbell took a few minutes to get into the game and provided a bit of a sprak. I hardly noticed Muamba, Cranie, and Wheater. Tom Heaton replaced starting goalkeeper Joe Lewis at halftime but had very little to do.
• All-in-all, England put in a decent performance. Slovenia exploited a couple weaknesses in the first 15-20 minutes, over which they played well, but England dictated the game after that. For how strong of a Young Lions side this was, though, I don’t think they’re going to be too happy with the final scoreline. There was too much short passing in the back and then kick-and-chase, rather than individual skill, movement, and the use of incisive through balls. England was a man up for the last 25 minutes but didn’t do anything to capitalize on their advantage.
Man of the Match: Richards, with Noble a close second.
England’s senior team plays later this afternoon against the Czech Republic. I’ll be doing the same thing for that game as I did here, but my commentary will be posted immediately following the match rather than the day after.