Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Final Observations of England Friendly Against Czech Republic (2-2)

• It’s clear that England is really lacking in two positions – left wing and center forward. Steven Gerrard is a very good player and performed well on the left today, but that’s not his natural position and he doesn’t give England much width. He needs to play in the position Frank Lampard occupied today. Stewart Downing should be nothing more than a squad player. Wayne Rooney, as we all know, is not really a striker, and neither Jermain Defoe nor Emile Heskey (who has 5 goals in 45 appearances) are the answers for England long-term. Fabio Capello left the best options for those positions at home, in my opinion, in Ashley Young (left) and either Darren Bent or Peter Crouch up top. Bent or Crouch paired with either Defoe or Rooney and England would be in business. Young provides the pace and on-ball qualities that England just doesn’t have. Joe Cole is a versatile option who can play either wing and as a second striker, but I’m not sure if he’s consistent enough on the international stage to start.

• Wes Brown scored today, but I don’t think he’s the best option at right back. Glen Johnson brings more to the table than Brown while making half as many mistakes, of which Brown made two bad ones in this game. Luke Young isn’t a bad player. Phil Neville is still serviceable. It seems like Brown’s spot isn’t even up for contention, and that’s a problem.

• The Czech Republic were the better team in this match. They’re not half as flashy as England can be at times, but they get the job done. It was nice to see them rebound with a victory after that disastrous collapse against Turkey in Euro 2008, the last game they played. They deserved the victory and were harshly done by when Joe Cole scuffled home the late equalizer.

• As with the U-21’s, I was disappointed with the turnout at Wembley. Look, there aren’t too many international games played each year so when there is one, I’d expect it to be sold out or close to it. If you don’t think you’re going to get that at Wembley, move the game to a smaller stadium. There’s no need to have a “national stadium” anyway, not when there are other fully capable grounds in the country.

• England’s players didn’t have the same passion as their Czech counterparts. I can’t blame it on their new captain, John Terry, I just think they need to put a little more into their performances in the future. It’s hard to explain, really – it seemed like something was missing. They get plenty of credit for their two comebacks, though, because those are hard to come by at this level (unless you’re Turkey, of course!)

• All things considered, Capello can take some positives and negatives out of this game. As I said, his team came back twice from a goal down. David Beckham looked very good on the right side and still gets it done. Ashley Cole put in a solid 90 minutes. The negatives, though, outweigh the positives. England generated nothing up front. They were very, very sloppy at times. David James wasn’t at his finest, even though there was nothing he could do about Jankulovski’s fantastic free kick. There's a lot to improve upon, and I'm sure Capello knows that.

England is back in action on September 6, when they'll pay a visit to minnows Andorra. Andorra began their qualifying campaign for World Cup 2010 today with a 3-0 loss at Kazakhstan. It'll be England's first game in UEFA Group 6 and should be a victory for the Three Lions. They outscored Andorra by a combined 8-0 in their two games against the 182nd-ranked team in the world in Euro 2008 qualifying.

Observations of England Friendly Against Czech Republic--First Half

• Well, I had it wrong earlier when I said Gareth Barry would be on the left and Steven Gerrard in the middle. The two were reversed to start, though Gerrard ended up drifting inside anyway. Ashley Cole and Wes Brown, the left and right backs, respectively, both needed to get forward and provide some necessary width to the team.

• David Beckham can still hit a dead or slow-moving ball pretty well. Big shock, huh? He's still England's best option on the right side.

• I’m getting tired of seeing Wayne Rooney listed as a striker for England. He comes back so far to collect the ball that’s he virtually a fifth midfielder, and when you only have Jermain Defoe (hardly a target man) up front and the firepower that’s already in England’s midfield, Rooney doesn’t need to drop so deep. It hurts the team more than it helps, though you have to like the hustle and work rate.

• Well-deserved yellow card for Barry – reckless tackle.

• Good awareness from Wes Brown to clear the ball after David James made the one-handed diving save after a quarter of an hour.

• Even though Gerrard rarely plays on the left, he looked great bursting forward out there today. He tested Petr Cech early after cutting in and ripping a low, hard drive, won a corner kick in the 35th minute after having his shot deflected out of bounds, passed it very well, and drew a couple fouls in good position for England. When he came back inside, though, he struggled a little bit to connect his passes.

• After Brown’s good play earlier, he was largely responsible for the Czech Republic’s first goal, scored by Milan Baros. As a defender, Brown made the huge mistake of diving in and letting the attacker walk it right around him there at the corner of the 18. The ball was then passed to Baros, who made no mistake. The goal itself went in off Ashley Cole, an unfortunate bounce because it appeared that James was going to make the save before the ball could sneak into the corner.

• As match commentator Robbie Earle wisely pointed out, the width of the Czech Republic put England at a big disadvantage because the Three Lions have little of it. When the full backs have to go that far forward, they leave holes in the back that can be exploited.

• Frank Lampard was fortunate to not receive a yellow card for his sliding challenge in the 28th minute. He caught all man first, ball second, and it wasn’t even close.

• England’s best stretch of the half came between the 25th-40th minutes, but Cech was up to the task. Better finishing from Rooney and Defoe, in particular, was needed to equalize.

• Great long throw from James to his Portsmouth teammate, Defoe, just before halftime. Defoe then won a foul. The free kick from that foul resulted in an England corner kick, which was headed in by Brown, whose first international goal makes up for his earlier mistake.

Lampard Paired With Gerrard in England's Starting Lineup

Yes, you read correctly.

We've seen this story before. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard can't play together in the same midfield, but yet England boss Fabio Capello is going to give it another try in today's friendly against the Czech Republic. This should be interesting.

The other surprise in the starting lineup is Gareth Barry, not because of his inclusion but because of his position. Barry will be playing left wing, definitely not his best role or the one he's been so successful in for Aston Villa lately. Why play Barry, who has a great relationship with Gerrard and would allow the Liverpool captain to go forward, in the holding role, where Barry is best, when you can play Lampard, who gives you nothing defensively? Makes no sense to me.

Here's the full lineup:

GK: James

RB: Brown
CB: Ferdinand
CB: Terry (captain)
LB: A. Cole

RMF: Beckham
CMF: Gerrard
CMF: Lampard
LMF: Barry

ST: Rooney
ST: Defoe

More analysis later.

Final Observations of England U-21 Friendly Against Slovenia (2-1)

• 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.