Wednesday, June 23, 2010
England advance, but concerns remain
So this was progress. Reaching the knockout stages of the World Cup should have been a matter of routine for England. Their tortuous start meant it became a relief but, when accompanied by a much superior display, they advanced in more ways than one.
• Capello: No more fear factor
Slovenia were seen off, along with comparisons with the warring, woeful French. England's World Cup campaigns, however, tend to be judged with reference to their predecessors. As in 1986 and 1990, a win was finally recorded at the third time of asking, averting an early exit.
Many seemed to be improved by a change of personnel during a tournament. This, then, conformed to type. Plan A was, if not discarded, certainly amended. In the process, Fabio Capello proved himself both flexible and stubborn. As the pressure mounted, his own decision-making has become subject to ever greater scrutiny. More flattering appraisals should follow.
Although he allowed Joe Cole, previously the great ignored, a cameo, the Italian displayed his reluctance to listen to his former captain, John Terry, or the wider footballing public. He was justified, too. His two unenforced alterations - Matthew Upson came in for the banned Jamie Carragher - resulted in the sole goal.
James Milner and Jermain Defoe combined profitably, the striker illustrating his predatory streak. Milner's pinpoint crossing provided a contrast with the wayward delivery of the dropped Aaron Lennon. Defoe, selfish, single-minded and sharp, is the antidote to Emile Heskey, a man not selected to make others play well but to capitalise if they are excelling.
The reliance on Wayne Rooney was thus reduced. Perhaps that is just as well, given that he departed with an ankle problem but, paired with a proven scorer, perhaps it was no coincidence, then, that Rooney's touch seemed surer, his passes more perceptive. Without recapturing his coruscating mid-winter form, he appeared roused. Denied by the post, however, he still has not scored at the World Cup. Nor has Frank Lampard, who scattered shots liberally around Germany four years ago and is proving similarly inaccurate in South Africa now.
But like Steven Gerrard, Lampard made a series of well-timed forays forward that gave England a vibrancy they have lacked in recent months. The captain retained his nominal position on the left. While Milner showed the merit of an out-and-out right winger, there was no such equivalent on the opposite flank. England are not a balanced side, but they appeared more of a coherent one.
The key, perhaps, was pace. The tempo of the game finally supported theories that a winter World Cup, and its colder climate, would favour England. Compared to the slower rhythms of the international game, it was more of a Premier League performance. Thankfully, more of the players resembled their Premier League selves. There has been much to admire from the South American sides over the past fortnight but this was England playing England and, in a rarity, doing it well.
With Milner fashioning chances aplenty, they should have won by a greater margin. Samir Handanovic's acrobatics and England's failure to score a second goal resulted in a second-placed finish and, in turn, what appears a more difficult route through the competition.
It is a reason why a 1-0 win over a side England would normally be expected to beat should not inflate expectations. The path from pessimism to optimism can be travelled quickly, but there remains cause for concern.
England retain a tendency to concede possession carelessly in their own half - Terry, Lampard and Gareth Barry were all culprits - which could prove costly. There were opportunities for Slovenia, which should provide encouragement for the superior opposition England will encounter hereafter. In a game England dominated, David James nonetheless had to make several saves, Terry two outstanding blocks and Upson one, but the worry should be that they were required. Both central defenders impressed without quite disproving the idea England may have a soft underbelly.
But then this has never been a flawless group. Desire and a willingness to impose themselves upon the game were apparent along with Capello's ability to get a response from his players. In one sense, England began with an advantage: given their startlingly poor performance against Algeria, they could only improve. But improve they did. Now the issue is if progress can be sustained or, as in 1998, England live to regret their inability to top the group.