England again proved their inability to control an International match during a 1-1 World Cup qualification draw against Montenegro. England have also failed to beat Poland, Sweden and Ukraine in their recent run of fixtures and have often been dominated rather than dominating. Why do England struggle so much to control these games against supposedly inferior opponents?
1. Lack of Frank Lampard
Frank Lampard has only started one of the aforementioned games England have failed to win. He scored an 87th minute penalty to save England from a disastrous home defeat to Ukraine and won the Man of the Match award. He has also scored the winning goals in recent friendlies against Spain and Brazil and was influential during the victory over Italy at Wembley. He is the form midfielder in the Premier League and has 12 league goals to his name. That’s two more league goals than the preferred England midfield trio of Gerrard, Carrick and Cleverley combined. Chelsea managers have lost their jobs in the past as a result of undervaluing Frank Lampard, and the boardroom decision not to offer him a contract extension still confuses the vast majority of football supporters. His experience in important and difficult matches, including European Cup finals would surely help England take control of these games that they are expected to win.
Fear has had an impact on every England team since quarter-final elimination at Euro 2004. Fabio Capello cited it as the reason his team failed to perform on so many occasions when playing home fixtures at Wembley. It is a combination of fear of getting lambasted in the national press and a fear of public backlash from fans who pay so much money on tickets and travel to support their country. They are also under heavy pressure to perform at the same level they do for their domestic clubs, which has continued to baffle International managers for over a decade. This expectation is heightened when England play what are regarded as lesser opposition, and the players appear unable to cope with the increased pressure.
3. Central defensive partnership
All great sides capable of dominating matches have had strong and settled partnerships at the centre of defence. The Arsenal side of the 90’s had Adams and Bould, Mourninho’s Chelsea had Terry and Carvahlo and European and World Cup winners Spain had Puyol and Pique, who have an understanding formed over many years at Barcelona. Terry and Ferdinand were England’s last settled centre-half pairing, and that fell apart in the most spectacular and controversial of fashions. It is difficult to believe Roy Hodgson even knows who his best two defenders are after constant injury problems, let alone his most effective partnership. Lescott and Smalling performed well in the air against Montenegro, but struggled with distribution and lack the necessary composure to keep possession for any team hoping to stamp their authority on an International match.
4. Michael Carrick is scared
Michael Carrick has the unfortunate tendency to go missing in an England shirt. When playing for Manchester United, Carrick protects the back four and retains possession of the ball in equal measure, allowing his attacking team-mates to express themselves as he takes responsibility of many league games. Carrick has been found wanting in the past against International players of the highest calibre, as displayed in the 2009 Champions League final when he anchored a United midfield that was embarrassingly outclassed by Xavi and Iniesta. Carrick believed that he was worthy of a first team place for England, and continued to get overlooked by Fabio Capello which led to him withdrawing from International selection. It seems as though Michael Carrick is too concerned with not making a mistake to have any real impact for England, and his place as a passenger would surely be better filled by the consistent Frank Lampard or a fully fit Scott Parker.
5. Hodgson slow to react
Roy Hodgson has united the England camp and reinstalled a sense of national pride in the players. However, during the draw against Montenegro, he had the opportunity to make substitutions that would have eased the pressure on England and given them a better chance of extending their lead. After striker Dejan Damjanovic had been introduced by the home nation, Montenegro had a sustained period of pressure as the quality of Jovetic and Vucinic began to stretch the England defence. There was a looming sense that England were going to concede that everybody was aware of, except it would seem, Roy Hodgson. Leighton Baines could have been introduced on the left side of midfield, to inject some energy into a lethargic England side, whilst still providing protection for Ashley Cole should he wish to bomb forward. Teams are judged on their results, and victories come as a result of scoring goals. Danny Welbeck put in a great defensive performance, but as a goal for Montenegro looked increasingly inevitable, perhaps attack would have been the best form of defence. Jermain Defoe guarantees you a goal at any level, and should consider himself unfortunate not to have featured at all after his brace against San Marino on Friday. Ashley Young was introduced by the former West Bromwich Albion manager, but too late, and only as a retaliation to the equaliser Hodgson should have foreseen.
6. Are they really inferior opponents?
The final question; Are these teams really inferior to England? Despite being ranked 4th in the FIFA rankings, England haven’t won a major trophy since 1966. They have been eliminated from recent tournaments by the likes of Brazil, Portugal, Croatia and Italy, and never seem capable of surpassing the quarter finals. Countries like Poland, Ukraine and Sweden all have squads littered with talented players, some with far greater technique and ability than several England regulars. Maybe a draw is a good result at hostile away venues such as Stadion Pod Goricom in Podgorica, Montenegro. All week, England fans have been told that defeat would be catastrophic. Defeat was narrowly avoided, so perhaps a point is all we should expect from England sides of the future. Maybe we have found our level.