England kicked-off their World Cup preparation tonight in Wembley against an attack minded, adventurous Mexican team. Much debate centred around what line-up Fabio Capello would choose, with the Chelsea contingent (and David James) not available given their season had ended just a week ago. Capello decided to start with a kind of 4-2-3-1/or 4-4-2 formation, as illustrated on the right.
Robert Green started in goal, but Joe Hart would be given his home debut at half time. Ledley King partnered Rio Ferdinand at the back, while Leighton Baines was given the opportunity at left back in place of Ashley Cole. James Milner, the much talked about midfielder, was given a holding midfield type role alongside Carrick, leaving Theo Walcott on the right and Gerrard to roam from the left hand side, but spent much of his time centrally handing extra work to Wayne Rooney.
At the end of the night, both goalkeepers can feel safe that they acquitted themselves well in their opening audition. Robert Green had by far the more to do in the first half, and stood up to the task with a couple of fine saves. Joe Hart, who came on at half-time, had less to worry about and failed to concede a goal. This position is still very much open to Capello’s final interpretation… or until who is the first to falter.
Barry a big miss
Gareth Barry was a noticeable absentee from the England midfield tonight. On the back of a poor season at club level, Michael Carrick failed to acquit himself well and at times was sloppy in possession, as well as reluctant to put a foot in on a challenge, leaving his squad place in huge jeopardy. Similarly, James Milner looked out of place and was often anonymous as the Mexicans made wave after wave of attack. This will put doubt on whether or not Milner and Carrick are good enough to fill the void left by Barry, who will be racing to be fit in time for the Finals.
Out of Sync
At times the England defence got extremely congested and out of sync, something expected when defenders haven’t been playing together for a prolonged period of time. On more then one occasion, King and Ferdinand found themselves following the same ball, one defender failing to cover his partner, and thus dragging the full backs into the box which resulted in a melee of bodies. The two holding midfielders, Milner and Carrick, sat very deep when England were on the back foot and invited pressure from the Mexican attackers. The two banks of four set up was ineffective and Mexico picked it apart quite easily. All this will be sorted with time, especially when Terry returns to complete the strongest available back-line.
Gerrard still the talisman
Despite failing to stay in position out on the left where it seemed he had started, Steven Gerrard was quite dogged and determined to make an impact on the team. Clad with a Terry Butcher bandage after an early knock to the head, Gerrard was quite lively and more like his old self after a disappointing season at club level. Gerrard was definitely more at home when he switched to a central role in the second half. This is a huge positive going into the competition in a few weeks time.
The right options
In Walcott (first half) and Lennon (midway through second) England have two right midfielders that can unlock any defense with pure and utter speed. Both players showed glimpses of this, particularly Lennon who was ultimately tripped and earned a free kick just outside the box. Not always a priority factor, but if England come up against a weakened left hand side in the World Cup they should look to get either of these men into the game to punish defences. After facing a speed merchant in Theo Walcott for 60 minutes, not many left backs would fancy seeing a fresh Aaron Lennon coming off the bench. In balance to this pace, Capello can easily put Adam Johnson, who is very much in form and brimming with confidence, out on the right for something a little “different”.
Johnson and Baines
Questioned over his defensive abilities, Glen Johnson is yet to be majorly exposed by anyone. His lapses in positioning are often covered by his pace and tenacity to win the ball. Attack-wise, he is terrific and like we saw many times for Liverpool, Portsmouth and Chelsea over the years, he is capable of scoring great goals. On the opposite side, Leighton Baines isn’t exactly world class backup for Ashley Cole but should be more then capable to do a respectable job if called upon. A fine left foot is a bonus if England earn a free kick in the right area.
Milner on the left
James Milner clearly changed when he was moved out onto the left hand side from the holding midfield position he had started in. He worked hard down the left and got into the game more as time went on, giving Capello food for thought on whether Milner would be more suited to a wide role despite acclamation from people after a fine season operating centrally. An Ashley Cole/James Milner partnership may work a treat for England, one that might be on display next Sunday when they play Japan. One things for certain, unless Milner manages to drastically improve in a holding role, a left midfield berth could be his only shot at starting against the US.
Room for Improvement
It is fair to say that there is huge room for improvement from England. Admittedly, England were without a number of big players while others (Bent, Dawson) are still awaiting the chance to audition. But at the moment, England look far from a World Cup winning team and their defending tonight would’ve been more effectively picked off by more accomplished finishers, something the USA have in abundance. Algeria are quick and adventurous, but are bringing an inexperienced squad that lacks goals.
Mexico don’t lack flair or pace, it’s like a team of Theo Walcotts. Defensively however, they’re a shambles and will get found out again by France and Uruguay. With such an abundance of pace, Mexico can be lethal on the counter-attack but badly lack the end product as was evident tonight. My feeling is that their games in the group stages won’t lack goals or excitement, but more poor defending and they’ll be taking an early flight home.