Whilst the game in Moldova proved that there are in fact easy games at international level, Ukraine confirmed that they remain a rarity. So what have we learned from the World Cup qualifying double-header? Allow me to summarise. England can actually keep the ball, Lampard and Gerrard can play together, Tom Cleverley can’t finish – Jermain Defoe can, Andriy Yarmolenko & Yevhen Selinis are complete pansies and Moldova are well worth their World Ranking of 141. Oh, and James Milner is my favourite England player.
It’s a funny old game, football. And England ‘fans’ in particular are a peculiar breed. We complain when we can’t keep the ball, but you can bet your bottom dollar that the same people will have complained about our calculatedly slow build-up play against the Ukrainians. There’s no such thing as a happy England fan. But you can’t look past how well our players kept hold of the ball in the first half. Jolean Lescott and Phil Jagielka may have spent more time on the ball than Tom Cleverley and Jermain Defoe, but how many times in the past have we groaned when Rio Ferdinand has pumped it long, only to see the opposition come away with the ball. It may not be the most exciting thing in the world to watch, but if we have possession, we’re less likely to concede. But concede we did. Whilst ITV’s panel of ‘experts’ were quick to point out that the defence should have stepped up, the strike was otherworldly and there was nothing stopping it. The second half saw us playing slightly more direct, as the minutes ticked by without an equaliser, which meant Ukraine saw a lot more of the ball. But it was a game we should/could have won. Thankfully, the ever trust-worthy Frank Lampard was on hand to bail us out from the spot after good work from substitute Danny Welbeck in the box drew a Ukrainian hand to the ball.
I firmly believe that the Lampard/Gerrard debate can finally be put to bed though. It’s completely different now than it was say, five years ago. The two are no longer the rampaging attacking midfielders they once were. They play completely different roles for their clubs now and ageing limbs have brought with them a discipline to their respective games. The self-restraint which was once required from a team-mate, be it in the shape of Xabi Alonso at Liverpool, or Claude Makélélé at Chelsea, is now present in the English pair. It used to be that their eagerness to get forward and score goals meant that they either got in each others way or that one sitting back to compensate for the other going forward, proved a task neither fancied doing. Now, they both play deeper generally and neither have the legs to constantly make forward runs, so when one of them does, the other naturally sits without fuss. There’s an understanding there now which has never really been seen before. Whether the partnership can impress as much against stronger opposition remains to be seen, but the likes of Michael Carrick and Scott Parker especially, will do well to force themselves into the starting line-up, with the Lampard/Gerrard axis allowing a further central player to play slightly further forward. The last three internationals have seen this role entrusted to Tom Cleverley.
Tom, Tom, Tom. If only you owned a pair of shooting boots, eh? Twice he had the chance to bury the ball, with Jermain Defoe presenting him with a chance that looked easier to score than miss and Frank Lampard flashing a cross in from the right which he failed to connect with cleanly. He was unlucky later on when he hit the woodwork, but he’ll feel that he should have scored at least one of his chances. He was impressive against Moldova but was far less imposing in his Wembley début but to be fair to him, I feel asking him to play the number 10 role behind the striker is asking him to play slightly out of position. He’s much better playing as a central midfielder and it is here where he has excelled for his club this season. He’s no doubt capable of doing a job in the position though, but if it’s seen as a long-term option, he must add goals to his game as we won’t be able to rely on Frank Lampard popping up from midfield forever.
Speaking of goals, Jermain Defoe has scored
three two in his last three internationals. There is literally not another English footballer alive today that can finish as emphatically as he. The clichéd title of ‘natural goalscorer’ is very fitting. Whilst we are blessed with plenty of options up front (when everyone is fit), there’s only one who can claim to be a true number 9, and that is Defoe. Sure, he can be greedy – going for goal when there are arguably better options – but if you don’t shoot, you don’t score. His goal away in Moldova off the back of great work from the impressive Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was a great strike. Hitting a ball first time to the near post when it comes from behind is a difficult skill. It was scarily reminiscent of a goal scored by a certain fellow England international Wayne Rooney against AC Milan in the Champions League in 2007. Defoe’s disallowed goal against Ukraine was harsh, but we’d probably say it was a good decision if it had been a Ukrainian. Either way, Yarmolenko’s embarrassing face-hold got the blood boiling. Defoe supposedly bringing down Yevhen Selinis (who’s got to be at least 9ft) in an illegal manner was laughable too. European referees are notorious for giving cheap free-kicks though, so it’s to be expected. If he carries his form forward into the Premier League with Spurs, he’ll feel hard done by if he finds himself out of the national side come the next round of fixtures.
Defoe vs Moldova – Rooney vs AC Milan
It’s a good job I’m one of those rare people who can completely put aside club loyalties and bias when it comes to England. James Milner is fantastic. It’s funny how many people huff and puff when his name comes up on the team-sheet, considering that only two years ago, every football fan in the country was crying out for him to start for England after his Young Player of the Year award with Aston Villa in the 2009/10 season. He may not be the quickest, or indeed the winger with the most flair in the squad, but with Glen Johnson (who continues to impress going forward) overlapping, his solid defensive displays and supreme work ethic are vital for England. Maybe they should swap positions! He’s also so under-rated technically it baffles me. He never puts a foot wrong and he’s got brilliant feet. He’s an intelligent footballer in that he makes the right decisions on the pitch at the right times, but he’s always capable of producing a moment of magic too, but only when it’s needed of course. Composure sums him up and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him panic or make rash decisions. His calm finish against Moldova was a long overdue first international goal. I could honestly shower him with paragraphs of praise, but I’d be wasting my time and my words would probably fall on blind eyes.
There’s plenty that could have gone better last night, but I’m never one to jump on England’s back and complain too much when it isn’t necessary. Four points are better than three after-all. It was a decent enough point against Ukraine in the end and hopefully we won’t be looking back on it as two points lost at the end of the campaign. San Marino should prove to be another Moldova like thrashing, but Poland will again represent a sterner test. Alarm bells are far from ringing though and I firmly believe we are making good progress under Roy Hodgson.
(I actually forgot that Steven Gerrard got himself sent off…)