England’s Midfield Malady

September 12, 2012 in International

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They had one job.

Granted, the bittersweet nature of Wimbledon, the euphoria of the Olympics and Paralympics, Lewis Hamilton still setting the pace in F1, and, as recently as two days ago, the ghost of Fred Perry being banished as the first British winner of a Grand Slam in a million years took centre stage were always going to be tough acts to follow.

However, the English football team had already contributed by not overly embarrassing themselves at Euro 2012 and somehow elbowing their way to the status of (empirical) third best football team in the world. All they had to do to extend the Bumper Summer of Sport into an Indian one was to produce a solid (not even spectacular) performance against opposition they had met and bested as recently as three months ago.

After last night, I hereby announce that Autumn has arrived.

They started brightly enough. 12 minutes in, Jermain Defoe turned a defender, shrugged off a tackle and blasted the ball in from 25 yards. Unfortunately, the opposing defender’s decision to hit the deck like he’d been sniped from the higher tiers of Wembley saw it ruled out for a foul.

What followed is what I am calling the “Tom Cleverley Power Hour”: three golden opportunities missed, running into blind alleys and generally struggling to climb his way out of Anatoliy Tymoschuk’s pocket.

In the middle of all this, the Ukrainians struck with a peach of a goal. Deep defensive line and bad closing down aside, it was a true moment of quality: and there’s only so much you can do about that.

As the second half progressed, Steven Gerrard picked up a yellow and Roy Hodgson turned to Champions’ League winner Danny Sturridge and leader of the high-top’s comeback, Danny Welbeck. While England piled on the pressure, the two Dannys looking threatening; Steven Gerrard’s reluctance to tackle after his caution saw him dribbled past like he wasn’t even there. Counter attack after counter attack were launched at the English defence:  a pattern of play reminiscent of Germany vs. 2010, and we all know what happened then.

Come the last ten minutes, Frank Lampard materialised out of nowhere to dispatch the grace-saving penalty after Welbeck’s wayward first touch ricocheted off a Ukrainian hand. What he does best put England back in it, and after the equaliser, Gerrard decided it was time to go full throttle again.

 

Oh dear.

So with Stevie G trying too hard, Cleverley too talked up to take seriously, and Lampard’s general performance hardly covering him in glory, the question is this: what has happened to England’s central midfield?

Well, absolutely nothing, which seems to be the problem. Lampard and Gerrard were world-class in their prime, but even then, could not seem to mesh for the good of their country. Now, as the dying embers of a failed “Golden Generation”, their differences seemed more apparent than ever: Gerrard’s stubborn insistence not to adapt his game to his failing body particularly jarring.

The third member of the trio does have his merits, but Tom Cleverley is not a natural No. 10. Some would argue that England’s footballing culture does not inspire such a player to be nurtured; look at Joe Cole, closest thing to fitting the bill, and yet shoved out wide quicker than you can say “left-midfield”.

Cleverley also represents the largely absent younger generation. With them either drowning in hype (Tom himself), ludicrously high price tags (Rodwell), set back two or three years by crippling injury (Wilshere) and media vilification (Henderson) or, quite simply, not good enough to demand a regular starting place (Livermore), it seems there aren’t many options here either.

The solution probably should have come a couple of years ago with a new look midfield given time to mesh together. Hodgson cannot be blamed for picking the side he did yesterday, but repeating the mistakes of those who have come before him will see him trudge from a glorious Summer of Sport to a Winter of Discontent.

And that’s terrible.

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