Having just watched the France – England football friendly, I will offer these thoughts on the game played. The game ended 1-0 to France, courtesy of a David James screw up and a consequent penalty.
Overall, while the performance, especially in the second half, was not capable of overcoming a French side soon confident of our inability to defeat them, there are positives to offer to one who has seen many of the McClaren matches that so embarrassed our nation. Firstly, the team, even following the substitutions at half-time, did not fragment, lose shape or discipline but continued doggedly while retaining a tactical scheme. The tactical scheme did not work, but the team remained professional, if second-rate.
Secondly, the defence remained solid, even with the substitutions. This can be attributed (at an educated guess) to improved coaching, improved morale and better leadership, as well as the competent support of the central midfielders.
Third, the only goal was conceded via a penalty; not a handsome cause but one less injurious than concession from open play. This ties in with the point about the robust shape of the team and the defence.
As for the negative aspects of tonight’s performance, we had better start with the fundamental and the particular.
The particular error was the choice of David James for goalkeeper. A well-founded keeper for club, he is known to lose his head on the big occasion (meaning a failure of nerves when put to the supreme test). This was proven again by his incompetent handling of the Nicholas Anelka breakthrough, clumsily colliding with the player, while completely misreading the movement and timing of both ball and player. Otherwise, it might be said that he had a good night, not committing other stupid errors, but it does remain salient that his abilities fail under the stress of the immediate and nerve-wracking at the highest levels.
The fundamental error was located in the balance of the midfield. I was impressed by the opening formation, seeming to possess considerable potential for both cohesive strength and aggressive movement. However, I underestimated the consequences of the inclusion of Hargreaves and Barry in the central midfield; while both performed on the defensive with their usual tenacity and excellence, their attacking performances were woeful, to say the least. A consistent pattern established itself, the interplay between right/left back and the midfield leading to the ball being pushed out to the wings: a penetrating run followed by a swift cross into the box. The defensiveness, even exaggerated defensiveness of the central midfielders consistently allowed the French (playing deep) to concentrate in space and time to either smother attacks from the wings or to overwhelm the few players getting forwards. That said, even with these disadvantages, the team looked capable of eventually scoring as half-time arrived. I believe this must be a testament to the excellent quality of much of the play and of the players in question, consisting of much of the cream of English football.
It seems that Gerrard was not playing in quite the right role, though I could be mistaken, as I believe the primary cause of the attacking dysfunction was the lack of support, consequent on playing too deep. I would sincerely hope that was Beckham’s last game for England: while his performance was by no means inadequate, he seems to play in a role that is too old-fashioned for the sort of game required to beat modern sides. If the game was to be played along the flanks, then a better attacking midfielder would have been required: someone possessing more pace, penetration and understanding than Beckham.
On the substitutions, I would state that the players were simply not quite good enough, especially the two forwards: the ever predictable and clumsy Michael Owen and Peter Crouch. Those two seemed lost upfront, trying to pierce a French defensive screen too strong and capable to be intimidated by two second-class substitutes. Again the problem not addressed was the reticence of the central midfielders to come forwards in good time.
Overall, it seemed the game-plan as developed on the pitch was too inflexible and by the second half, too predictable, with not enough options to cut back into the middle towards the penalty area being developed. I would ascribe this to the relative freshness of the team and the manager being in a process of developing his plan for the team he plans to take to the World Cup qualifiers.
Analyzing the substitutions, I must state that I believe that Capello recognised the as the game was a friendly, it was not worth risking the key players overstretching for what in the final sense is a game without true result. His purpose in the substitutions was probably multiple: he meant to test the resolve of both substitutes and players present on the pitch, see how the team reacted to changes against a capable side while behind, and to test the abilities of the substitutes in the trying circumstances. While I believe that Johnson and Bentley were not good enough on the night, they should not be precluded from further choice; Downing was quite excellent as the substitutes went, pushing hard and creating opportunities and space. The two forwards were lumpish and near-useless, though I may be prepared to give Crouch a benefit of the doubt.
Rooney needs to play behind a fellow striker, more attuned to hanging forward, yet capable of playing in the sort of partnership that Rooney excels in at Manchester United with Saha and Tevez. It is possible to develop the sort of partnership with Gerrard that he enjoys with Ronaldo, but I remain uncertain on that point, especially given Gerrard’s free ranging role in which he enjoys such devastation at Liverpool (har, har, 3-0!).
Overall, a good performance in many ways and one with much remaining to develop. I look forwards to the next match and seeing how Capello’s schemes are developing.