Oh England. You never fail to disappoint.
It was set up so perfectly. The game certainly had all the airs of a friendly, despite being the first time the national team played at the new Wembley. Best and most generously described as “cagey,” there were few attempts that troubled either keeper for the first hour. But then, Steve McClaren’s “master plan” (patent pending) came to fruition.
Beckham, who had looked dangerous on set pieces (the only time he looked dangerous; his inability to stick to the right flank was appalling), lofted an absolutely perfect free kick to the back post for John Terry to head past Helton in the 68th minute. It was the absolute height of hilarity and the tabloids were drooling over the storyline. Becks returns to deliver a free kick spot on for the new captain to head in (scoring his first goal in over 50 games), and it makes all the difference in a win over Brazil in the first game at Wembley. The hacks were delighted.
And then Diego had to go and ruin it. With England under the cosh for the last quarter of the game, and having watched England for far too long, it was only a matter of time. With less than a minute left on the clock, two minutes into stoppage time, Ledley King and Nicky Shorey (I have to say, other than this, Shorey was impressive) got caught ball-watching (along with pretty much every other England player in defense), and Diego popped up between them to head past Robinson from Gilberto Silva’s pin-point cross. All in all, a standard afternoon with the England squad.
Seems best served to start with why Beckham was brought back, because the goal completely elucidated it: free kicks. Free kicks, free kicks, free kicks. It wasn’t for his flank play or crosses, because he didn’t spend much time on the right wing. More often than not, he looked further infield than Gerrard or Lampard, and Carragher did well get forward up the right flank to cover at times. It is because of his set plays. No more.
Which leads to me Frank Lampard, free kick-taker extraordinaire for Chelsea. And invisible for England. He is the player best suited to take Beckham’s place on set plays, as it’s one of his specialties for Chelsea. But he was unable to fill that role in Becks’ absence, and in addition and once again, Lampard was nearly anonymous for the entire game. There really should be no debate over him and Gerrard. I do not understand it. Lampard’s inclusion is hurting the team. I sincerely hope Hargreaves’ return alleviates this problem, but it’s also worth mentioning that Gerrard did play well in a deeper role, and came through with a number of excellent tackles, even if his passing was a bit lazy at times.
There’s so much more to laugh about, as laughing is really the only way to avoid getting frustrated over this team. For one, Alan Smith had little business starting. It has to be in the FA’s bylaws that if at all possible a Manchester United player must start, and with Neville and Ferdinand injured and Rooney suspended, Smudger filled that role. That’s got to be the reason, because I can’t think of another. Yes, he made some decent tackles from the front and hassled Brazil well, but he also failed to trap or hold up the ball and ended up losing possession more often than not.
After Smith was subbed out, another United player filled the void. In his first touch of the game, Wes Brown slipped and put Europe’s top scorer Alfonso Alves through on goal, only to see his shot skim wide. To be fair, Wembley’s pitch has brought complaints from all sides and it clearly played a part here, but the incident was certainly in tune with a lot of the afternoon.
I recognize I’m taking shots at United and Chelsea players foremost, but honestly, if they were Liverpool, or Everton (ha), or (insert whomever here) players, I’d imagine I’d say the same. Because even though Liverpool has completely taken precedence over the national side, I am still an England fan, and I would still like to see the team succeed. I’ve just stopped expecting it, and that’s why a lot of these incidents are risible to me; too often the England team can be an absurd comedy.
And I couldn’t go without a mention of the manager. I throw out a disclaimer too often, but I don’t like criticizing managers. Usually, there has to be a reason they’re in the position they’re in, and I’m cognizant of the fact I’m just some guy on the internet with a blog. But I do not understand Steve McClaren. I do not understand his tactics at times (Why was Becks so far infield? Why did McClaren pair Owen with Smith?). I do not understand his substitutions (Smith for Dyer? Waiting that long for Carrick on for Lampard? And why didn’t Crouch come on earlier when England couldn’t keep position around that part of the field?). When I started writing this blog, I couldn’t imagine I’d ever get so carried away I’d call for a manager’s head in print, but I can’t see how McClaren will still be on for Euro ’08, whether England qualify or not, if that long, and I honestly hope he isn’t.
But hey, at the end of the day it was a fun game to watch, and against Brazil, not a bad way to open Wembley for the national side. I’ve definitely seen worse team performances recently, and admittedly, part of that has to be down to Beckham’s inclusion. He will definitely play against Estonia. I complain out of love, and I certainly know it’s a friendly. But England will still have to be better (and far less comical), despite the gulf in class of the opposition, on Wednesday.
Roll on Estonia.