‘Norwich! It’s just like watching Norwich…’
…was the chant going through my head as I watched England’s recent games against Peru, Ecuador and Honduras. After spending the domestic season enduring slow build-up football and very few chances at Carrow Road, I was hoping for a refreshing injection of exciting football over the summer. With Liverpool’s English core of Daniel Sturridge, Jordan Henderson, Steven Gerrard and Raheem Sterling seeing Liverpool to second place in the Barclays Premier League, and players like Ross Barkley, Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert helping Everton and Southampton respectively to strong finishes, the chances of attacking, enjoyable football were looking good. However, the three aforementioned games have been highly disappointing as England have commonly failed to kill off inferior opposition. Yes, we beat a fairly average Peru side but the performances against Ecuador and Hondruas left much to be desired.
England’s build-up play, like Norwich’s last season, lacks the movement, intensity and purpose attributable to the top international sides. All too frequently, the ball was passed sideways rather than forward, and the forward play when it arrived was often sloppy, not helped by a forward line isolated from the creative talents at the heart of midfield that forced England to play a long-ball game that never really looked like paying dividends. When that sort of play gets found out easily in the Premier League, why are England preparing for World Cup games against Italy and Uruguay in such a way? England need to be keeping the ball on the floor, moving the ball around quickly as the players move into, and create space.
For a side that with quick, technically excellent wingers like Sterling and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, England have played far too narrowly. Rather than allowing the full-backs to come into play, as Leighton Baines has done for Everton with great success in recent times, the narrow style of play seen in the previous two games resulted in a very congested penalty area and made it difficult for players to find the space needed to get a shot or pass away.
England have some excellent passers of the ball in Lallana, Henderson and Gerrard, but the way they set up for big games has to give them the opportunity to utilise this. There is a trade-off between a brand of uninspiring football which is unlikely to topple the great international sides and turning up the intensity to face the real possibility that players will need substituting relatively early in games due to a lack of acclimatisation in the heat of Brazil.
This could be a problem as England lack strength in depth, particuarly across the back four, making injuries a real concern. Although bringing Luke Shaw in place of Ashely Cole was a smart move by Roy Hodgson to give the youngster some valuable tournament experience as Baines’ deputy at left back, questions remain about the defensive attributes of Glen Johnson, who had a trying season at Liverpool but is virtually unchallenged in terms of competition. Beyond the solid centre-half pairing of Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka, Manchester United duo Chris Smalling and Phil Jones looked very nervy against Ecuador and need more time to bed into the international setup before they can be called upon for the big games.
So what do I expect from England at the World Cup? Like many others, honestly, not much. We’ve got a tough group but one we can emerge from, and that is the attitude that England players and fans must have. We’re not guaranteed to top the group stage these days, but with hard-work and desire we can nevertheless do well. We have young, aspiring players like Barkley, Sterling and Shaw, who I hope will all gain vital experience that will only help them improve. That said, here’s hoping that the style of play seen in the recent friendlies was more experiment than practice for otherwise, England’s time at the World Cup will be a long, exhausting affair that might as well be spent watching Norwich City’s 2013-14 season review.