1. The System Works
England started slowly in Almaty, with the home side coming at them relentlessly early on, but once they saw off the initial charge (just about) and settled down, it became pretty clear that Fabio Capello’s system of playing something akin to a 4-2-3-1 formation is really starting to work. Frank Lampard again played with maturity and responsibility alongside Gareth Barry in a slightly withdrawn role which allowed the front four a lot of freedom.
And while people will inevitably question the use of Gerrard on the left, I think his and Rooney’s understanding is sufficient to allow them to switch almost at will. And while neither of them is naturally a left winger, they both play there to good effect and the ability to change it up adds a sense of unpredictability to our play – you can never quite know where either one of them will be, and it suits their roaming style.
Having Theo Walcott on the other flank is a good move too, and you can understand why Capello is keen to stick with the youngster. Having him there provides a more direct and traditional outlet which gives England’s play some variation which it has lacked in recent years. Heskey as ever worked hard and brought players into the game and he works well as a cog in the machine, but it would be nice if he had a little more quality and inventiveness of his own, but you can’t have everything.
2. Right Back where we started?
Since Gary Neville’s recent spate of injuries and general age has left England without the right back that served them so well for so many years, we’ve struggled to find a really consistent replacement. Recently though Glen Johnson has received a lot of praise (including being named in the Ttiao… Team of the Season) but I have to say that I was thoroughly unconvinced by him tonight.
He’s got a great physique and gets forward well – indeed he made Rooney’s goal – but defencively he was very shaky. He gave the ball away under pressure a number of times and never looked solid. And given that this was against Kazakhstan, you have to fear how exposed he could be when up against the likes of Iniesta and Messi at the World Cup next summer.
Having said that, it could just have been a blip, especially given that it was his mistake that almost let Kazakhstan score after just 30 seconds – he may never have quite recovered his confidence from that slip. Either way though, I think Johnson has a long way to go to prove himself as a capable custodian of the right-back slot, but if he should fail to make the grade, who can we choose to replace him? Unlike on the other side of defence, England isn’t exactly blessed with world class right backs, so our search for Neville’s replacement may have just come full circle.
3. Kazakhstan’s got talent?
OK, well no, most of Kazakhstan’s team doesn’t really have the necessary talent to make it in the Premier League but I have to say I was quite impressed by their number 10, whose name if I recall was Kukeyev. He tormented Glen Johnson quite a bit and had bags of pace as well as a reasonable eye for a pass and he certainly looked the most likely man of any in their side to get on the score-sheet – as he actually managed in their 5-1 defeat to England at Wembley.
Obviously that’s not to say that we’ll be seeing him in the Premier League any time soon, but speaking also as a Wellington Phoenix fan, I’d be interested to see if any clubs at say League One level may be interested in taking a look at him, or even an A-League club. He did cause problems for England at times and though we weren’t at our best, it may be worth taking a punt on him as he seemed to have a bit of raw talent about him. What did you think?
4. England’s Number One…
… is not Robert Green. He had a decent season in the Premier League but coming into the England side and making his full debut I was unconvinced by his performance. I mean sure, he kept a clean sheet, but he was only really tested twice and he didn’t really do himself on either occasion. Inside 30 seconds Terry had to rescue the ball off the line and though it wasn’t his fault, a more commanding ‘keeper may have eased England’s nerves a little rather than blustering towards the ball and being caught out.
Then, when Kazakhstan had a goal ruled out after it was nodded in from a free kick it was entirely worrying to see Green come flying off his line to pluck wildly at mid-air as Ostapenko nodded the ball into the unguarded net. I could see as soon as the ball was hit that Green wasn’t getting there, and I was already summoning up some choice curse words as I saw the linesman raise his flag, allowing me to breathe a sigh of relief and let said curses escape un-uttered.
But an international ‘keeper should be a man who fills you with confidence, a sense of surety, and shouldn’t leave you concerned every time a shot is speculatively unleashed or a pass back sent bobbling his way. Rob Green simply doesn’t inspire that confidence in me and I’d be surprised if he does in his centre backs, and so I think for that reason he should not be considered as England’s number one.
The question as to who should be is one I can’t answer though. Clearly James is the favourite of Capello it seems but he is injured, and our other two prospects Foster and Hart are suffering at the moment – Foster too is injured while Hart was a spectator for the second half of the season while Shay Given replaced him. If England are to have a quality ‘keeper between the sticks in South Africa we need one of the Manchester clubs to let some English talent through, but unfortunately, that doesn’t seem too likely.
5. Kazakhstan: I like!
Yep, I couldn’t get through a whole Kazakhstan related post without a Borat reference, but I have to say, I was really impressed with the way the Kazakhstani fans supported the game. There was a great atmosphere in the ground and the fans were vocal in support of both teams, a consequence of their love of the Premier League and world football as a whole that saw Beckham receive a huge cheer when he came on.
Indeed, it made me even more sure in my belief that talk of establishing a ‘pre-qualifier’ system for the European stages of World Cup Qualifying would be bad for the game. It has been suggested that the lesser teams should have to compete for entry into the qualifying rounds proper so as to reduce the number of games that the bigger nations have to play.
But that, aside from being extremely pretentious (why should we play less and they play more?), would ruin these trips and the possibilities open to nations like Kazakhstan. They clearly loved every minute of having England in their country and if they had to pre-qualify the chances of such big occasions would become extremely rare. And indeed, such a move would surely disable the likelihood that they have of improving.
It’s long been shown that playing against better opposition forces you to raise your game and can very much be a learning exercise. And while the teams like Kazakhstan and Andorra do rarely pick up points at the moment, that is not to say they cannot improve in future, and they stand a better chance of doing so when pitting themselves regularly against a good standard of opposition.
And while pre-qualifying works well in other regions, that is not necessarily for footballing reasons, with the economic situation in poorer parts of Africa a prime example – they can’t afford to liberally host qualifiers so it suits them to have pre-qualifiers. But Europe is a rich football region and so every team should be given a fair fighting chance of reaching the World Cup Finals. Yes, some teams will probably never make it, but playing against England can only improve them and in many ways is their World Cup Final, so I don’t see why we should deny them that just so that our ridiculously pampered stars can have a longer holiday and not have to fly to Kazakhstan.