So that’s the phoney war over. We’ve all had our say about England; who should be in and who should be out. We’ve discussed which formation they should play and which personnel should play it.
Injuries haven’t been as bad as feared, Barry excluding.
Results are largely irrelevant in the run-in and we can all point to other countries’ dodgy performances in warm-up games to prove that.
So where are we? What have we learned from the last couple of England games and of the qualifying campaign?
I’d argue that one great comfort for England is that we do not lack goals. We are blessed with goal threats from the front six. We scored more goals than anyone else in qualifying and even in these two friendlies racked up five when not playing well. It’s a cliché but goals do win games. Without being full of goals you’re making progress in a tournament really tough work.
England is strong offensively. We are threats from either wing, from either overlapping full backs and from right across the midfield. We have possibly the widest range of striking styles in Rooney’s muscular vision, to Crouch’s angular freakishness, to Defoe’s fast feet and to Heskey, not really a striker at all but employed to let others score goals.
We shouldn’t have any trouble scoring goals in this World Cup. No, our problems lie elsewhere. With two full backs who love to go forward we risk being exposed on either side. Johnson is clearly defensively suspect – especially his positioning at set plays.
Perhaps our greatest worry is the central defence pairing of Terry & Ferdinand. Rio has lost some of his pace and keeps making basic errors. He looked very rusty against Mexico in the first half. Terry has never had any pace and his positional sense has been suspect also at set plays. We risk being turned by speedy forwards playing deeper and deeper to make sure that doesn’t happen thus drawing more pressure on to the defence
Neither shows composure on the ball. Ferdinand at one time was supposed to be England’s ball playing centre back but he rarely does any of that anymore. The inability of the central defenders to distribute to a regular high standard is a major weakness. We’re all sick of seeing those thirty yard dink balls from the top of the defensive third to the edge of the attacking third. Both of them seem to play those too often and regularly lose possession.
We also lack a world class holding midfielder at a tournament where many sides will be playing two; we’re hoping that an injured Barry can do the job.
It’s also disturbing how uncomfortable they looked when not playing 4-4-2. Many have said, and I agree, that no side playing a rigid 4-4-2 can win the world cup because they will be swamped in midfield by the likes of Spain, losing possession and inviting pressure on the back four constantly.
This tactical conservatism could be our downfall .The experiment in the second half against Japan was a welcome tactical change which will surely be essential at some point.
We need to accept that the defence is a weakness and not worry about it. England’s best chance is to go for aggressive and attacking play and get it into our heads that we need to outscore the opposition whatever it takes.
There should be no holding onto one goal leads, trying to defend our way to victory. We are not good enough at that. England needs to be bold and progressive. This is the World Cup to do it in. The cooler temperatures will allow a pressing, higher tempo game. Let’s play to our strengths and go out all guns blazing. Even if not successful, it would be fantastic to watch. Better that than another whimpering loss on penalties. We have nothing to live up to any more. Now is the time to cut loose.