In front of a packed Wembley crowd, spurred by the 4-1 win over Croatia in Zagreb, England were faced with Kazakhstan, ranked lowly but with lofty ambitions. For the first two minutes the visitors passed the ball around in the English half but after that the game settled into the expected pattern. Which was the Kazakhs defending deep and in numbers and the English looking to find a path for the ball into goal.
England had lined up in a 4-3-3 with Barry in the holding role and the Lampard - Gerrard pair entrusted with the task of dictating the play from mid-field. Heskey played as the lone striker with his back to the goal for most of the game. Walcott was on the right and to my surprise, Rooney lined up on the left. Even with the same set of players I would have expected Rooney to play just behind Heskey, especially as it is fairly obvious that the strong man Wigan striker is definitely not a big goal threat.
To me this formation suggested that England were to build their attacks through the centre. Gerrard and Lampard would play the ball wide and Walcott and Rooney would either
· Beat the defence and play the ball into the box for the oncoming Lampard/Gerrard, or
· Cross the ball to Heskey who would then nod it into the path of the oncoming Lampard/Gerrard
Wes Brown at right back and Ashley Cole at right back were of course to get forward as well to create extra pressure from the flanks all of which should have culminated with deft passes on the ground or crosses in the air into the box.
As the first half was played, England showed little evidence of managing either of the two routes to goal. The Kazakh backline was organized and deep and never let the ball and the man get pass them. This resulted in Rooney and Walcott seeing a lot of the ball but not really being able to create a play with it. Walcott was especially involved but without impact and Rooney seemed wasted on the left. All that England could manage in terms of attempts were some speculative shots from Lampard and though Gerrard was not getting forward like he would have been expected to, it is a fact that there wasn’t much space provided for him to run into balls. Heskey did the job he was supposed to, but so limited is his role in scope that it has little meaning if the forward men around him can’t create chances.
As for Kazakhstan, they did their job at the back and sowed some good movement, but it was clear that they were slower, weaker and less technically gifted than England. Anytime they tried something which required some level of skill (a through pass, a long ball) they would get outrun and outpowered and lose the ball.
Which led to some very interesting discussions at half time. I was convinced the game was England’s for the taking. Firstly, you could expect the Kazakhs to tire as the game progressed and secondly and more importantly, England would definitely be testing them with a weapon they had left untouched throughout the first half – the cross. I expected Beckham to come on for Walcott as the first change, though the other question was the need to have Barry against this opposition. There was hardly any shielding that the back four had needed and even though Barry’s absence would leave spaces for the Kazakhs to attack, even two centre backs looked well and truly sufficient to handle anything that their opponents could try and create.
Capello did take off Barry to put in Wright Philips on the left. The idea was to move Rooney to the centre but Rooney seemed to move to the right until the breakthrough finally came. While Wright Philips was lovely, it wasn’t really the change that led to the first goal. It was a good proper cross from Frank Lampard into the box which found Rio Ferdinand who was left unmarked to head into a near empty goal with no defenders covering the posts. That it came from a corner which was won from a SWP effort was a coincidence. The fact that it was England’s first good cross of the game and it got them a goal was not a coincidence.
They got three more goals from crosses. One more from a Lampard free kick which resulted in an own goal. Then one from Brown (this cross from the right, the other two had been from the left) which found Rooney. Then one more when Rooney finished after a Beckham (on for Walcott) cross late in the game could not be defended by the visitors. The last goal was Defoe latching on to a Heskey pass and beating the defence to score, but by then Kazakhstan were just too tired and seemed to have no legs.
The moment of the match though was a blooper. Ashley Cole played the strangest of defensive passes right into the feet of the Kazakh striker who showed calm and composure to score the visitors’ only goal from the resulting one-on-one. It made the score 2-1 then, but that was all to change and it finished 5-1 for England.
While England did score all five goals in the second half, I don’t think it was the change in formation that mattered so much. I think had they tried the option of crossing in the first half, maybe they would have seen some result. Yes having Rooney in the centre did help to convert them but then the first two came from set-pieces and it was strange that the English width had not tried that route before.
Mathew Upson’s performance was going to be a matter of interest for England and as it turned out we did not find out much about his potential at this level. Neither did we get any convincing answer about the Lampard-Gerrard pairing. Two thoughts on this. First that if Heskey is the target man, a second striker needs to play because he is not going to be a goal threat. That means Rooney can’t be sticking on the left and that means Joe Cole or in his absence Ashley Young or Downing or whoever. Second, the holding midfielder can be dispensed with against the minnows like Andorra and Kazakhstan. It is only then that Lampard-Gerrard can play as the central midfield pair. If the manager is going to take it as a challenge to always play Gerard and Lampard together then against a good team (say Croatia etc.), one of them will have to take the Joe Cole role with Hargreaves or Barry partnering the other. But then Joe Cole is the best player in that position for England and Walcott, SWP and Beckham or Bentley all are good for the right (with different types of impact).
So what’s the summary? When the opposition is playing with 10 men in defence, play Lampard and Gerrard together, else not. Another thought – against the minnows play Crouch instead of Heskey as he can win the balls AND be a goal threat.
Good win for the English though. Looking good to qualify and Capello delivering just like you would expect him to. Clearly a very wise and free thinking manager willing to do his thing and play a game over two halves. McLaren would never have done the things he has – not the least keeping Heskey in the playing eleven and leaving Owen at home.