20 August 2008

England 2-2 Czech Republic

Brown Ferdinand Terry Cole
Beckham Lampard Barry Gerrard

Baros 22’
Brown 45’
Jankulovski 48’
Joe Cole 90’

Yeah, it’s nice to see England eke out a draw even though they didn’t deserve it. It was an okay performance in the first half, less so in the second, but more than anything, it was a run-out against decent opposition. The biggest thing to take away is the fact that England drew level twice with late equalizers in both halves.

Even though it’s only a friendly, to be able to get goals at the death and to come back twice can be a massive confidence booster and a platform to build from. It’s been said innumerable times, but that doesn’t make it any less true: good teams get late goals to get something from a game even when its unwarranted.

England played most of the big guns, and ostensibly started in a 4-4-2, with Gerrard on the left of a midfield with Barry, Lampard and Beckham, and Rooney and Defoe up top. But Barry sat deeper than the rest, and Rooney often dropped into midfield, sometimes further than Gerrard, and also popped up out wide.

All in all, it was a mobile formation, with Gerrard, Barry, Lampard and Rooney shifting around as they saw fit. Sometimes it worked, but more often it didn’t. Gerrard isn’t a left-sided midfielder. If you can get him to stay over there, he can threaten by cutting in and shooting with his right foot, but he often floats trying to get more influence in proceedings, something he’s also prone to when on the right for Liverpool. And it mostly led to a disjointed midfield.

However, that’s the point of friendlies. It was a formation that allowed both Gerrard and Lampard on the pitch, which Capello seems to want, even though Lampard has repeatedly underperformed for England (not like he's the only one, but he's a main culprit).

Although under a new manager, the Czechs were as good as in Euro 2008. They defended well (until the late stages, like against Turkey) and looked to counter-attack whenever allowed, which they did to decent success early on. Barry picked up a yellow scything down a player on the break within 12 minutes, Baros forced James into a save in the 16th, and in the 22nd, the Czechs again got down the field quickly to open the scoring. Sirl found space on the left to receive a throughball, cut inside, and centered for Baros, who turned newly-minted captain John Terry and took a shot that deflected off Ashley Cole and past a sprawling James.

However, the home team started to see more possession, although there still wasn’t enough interplay between the midfield and strikers in the attacking third, and the couple of chances Defore worked out went straight at Cech. But in the 45th minute, Wes Brown’s excellent header from Beckham’s corner leveled matters. Once again, England needs Beckham’s set plays, although it was a very good run around the defender by Brown.

However, England was unable to build on it. They came out second-best after the break, were lucky not to lose a goal after Brown gave the ball away in his half within 90 seconds, and after Barry unnecessarily gave up a free kick on the edge of the box, went behind to Jankulovski’s flawless free kick in the 48th minute.

England made a number of changes in the second, bringing on Heskey, Joe Cole, Woodgate, Downing, Bentley and Jenas for Defoe, Gerrard, Ferdinand, Rooney, Beckham and Lampard, but the substitutions only served to make England more muddled. And no offense to Emile, but I’ve no idea why Capello used him as a lone striker, with Rooney deeper and out on the left even more in the second half before being substituted.

At least the Czechs played more conservatively and at a lower tempo in the second half, launching fewer counter-attacks (although a couple of Calamity James howlers involving Czech sub Sverkos almost gifted the visitors a third). But they still showed the same defensive resilience, which England was unable to break down.

However, in added time, Joe Cole spared England’s blushes at The Home of Football™, and made the scoreline look a lot better than the game actually was. A corner led to goalmouth scramble straight out of the lower leagues, which ended with Cole’s point blank shot going in off a Czech defender’s foot and face.

It may have been an ugly display for long stretches, but I’m not particularly upset with England’s performance. Well, any more so than usual. It’s a friendly, still early days in the Capello era, and the Czechs are perpetually above England in the FIFA ratings. This is England we're talking about. I’m not happy about the disorganized midfield, but that’s an area that’s plagued numerous England managers, and one that Capello’s still sorting out.

World Cup qualification begins in two and a half weeks in Andorra. Hopefully he’ll have more thoughts on the midfield by then.

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