Football: World Cup 2014 Engerland 1 – 1 Ukraine

Classic Man U Play… Or Nearly

They say it’s the mark of champions (or championes as we apparently say round here nowdays) that they can play badly and win. Less lauded is the ability to play very badly and scrape out an undeserved draw. But that, it appears, is the Engerland way. Faced with a side that had a little more spine, ability and tactical nous than the 146th ranked team in the world, Engerland began to show their true colours – and they were as drab and empty as the white of their Umbro shirts (soon to be replaced by new spangly super white Nike ones as the FA rakes in another lotto bag of cold, hard cash).

Sure there were moments of genuine hope. There was significantly less aimless hoofery as Engerland tried gamely to pass the ball around on the floor. And, yes, some of the passing was more incisive than the usual redundant back four recycling we have come to know and detest from Ferdinand and Terry. And, yes, there was the attempt to bed in youth as once again Cleverly and Ox formed the bedrock of the new spine. But these were fleeting moments of surprise in an otherwise depressingly familiar performance.

Brazil World Cup 2014 logo.

Among the many bad points were Engerland’s inability to deal with the tactical movement of Ukraine. The Ukrainians were constantly sharper both on and off the ball. One of the principle irritants of Englerland performances is the awesome lethargy with which players move when off the ball, rarely breaking sweat and almost never creating space and opportunity for others to exploit. Ukraine weren’t great, but they were head and shoulders above Engerland for large chunks of the game, even if the stats appear to show otherwise.

Engerland’s key faults are clear. An inability to deal with the ball when passed to (those ricochet shinpads are still working a treat). General tactical incompetence. The concept that heading the ball is something that inevitably involves the use of the arm (principally to bash your opponent’s head with) – that’s not heading, that’s call a foul. The concept that thrusting your hand into someone’s face is somehow a legitimate defensive move – also better known as a foul. Astonishingly poor positional play. Inability to defend, track back or regain possession effectively. The list, I’m afraid, goes on. And on.

Principle culprits are the Engerland Old Boys. The Lampard Gerrard Axis once again failed to ignite, which amazingly did not come as a surprise to anyone bar possibly Uncle Roy. However, thanks to Gerrard’s ability to get himself sent off it won’t be tried in the next match. Defoe, once again, was penalised for his inability to understand the fundamental Laws of the Game (this time it was facepalming your opponent rather than his usual offside shenanigans). But the main bad boy was Glen Johnson. His positional play is, frankly, atrocious. That’s not to say he isn’t dangerous going forward, or that he doesn’t contribute to Engerland’s attack. It’s that he’s supposed to be a right back. Not a winger. And that implies a certain degree of responsibility for actually getting involved in the frankly tiresome business of defending. In particular getting back into position fast once he has lost possession.

Johnson’s failure to do this destabilises Engerland massively. It drags the defence out of position, creating a vacuum either on his right side (where he is supposed to be), or on the left (as centre backs and left back move over to accommodate his adventures). And often it pulls back a genuine attacker who is forced to cover for Johnson’s escapades, removing them from the attacking threat. You wonder why Walcott gets such a bad press when playing for Engerland? Just look at how often he is pulled out of his normal role and forced to cover for Johnson. The fact is, for all his attacking threat (and these days full backs have to have some), his defensive behaviour is a catastrophe. Hodgson needs to decide if he wants Johnson’s attacking skills enough to actually play him as an attacker, because playing Walcott and others as emergency defenders to cover for him is idiotic. Compare Johnson’s behaviour to that of the left back Baines, who was just as much an attacking threat but actually also managed to defend, and you see what a liability the Liverpool player is.

As far as the new boys went, faced with a better class of opposition, neither Cleverly nor Ox were able to make the impact they had against Moldova. It’s credit to Hodgson that he kept faith with them, and valuable experience for them, but it’s illustrative of Engerland’s paucity of talent that there weren’t more experienced challengers for these positions. Still it’s clear that these two, along with Sturridge, Welbeck, Bertrand, Wilshire (if he ever gets fit) and Walcott will be the future for the Engerland team. So the more time they get the better.

The downside for Engerland is that it’s hard to make that transition when you need Lampard to get the final, equalising, penalty for you. Four points from two games puts Engerland joint top level with Montenegro and Poland. The group is still, essentially a mini-league of these three and Ukraine. So far it’s honours even.

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