England’s first warm-up game ahead of the World Cup saw them run out 3-1 winners over Mexico at Wembley this evening, a scoreline which more than flattered what was a relatively lacklustre performance from Fabio Capello’s team. Goals from Ledley King, Peter Crouch and Glen Johnson gave England their victory, but Javier Aguirre’s men will feel unlucky that their attacking endeavour and creativity was not rewarded with a more positive result.
Of course, all eyes were on Capello to see which system he would employ against a relatively strong Mexican side, with the adoption of a three-man defence being rumoured to be his preferred option in the days leading up to the game. As it happened, the Italian plumped for a 4-2-3-1 (although England defended with two banks of four) with James Milner and Michael Carrick employed as holding midfielders behind the attacking trident of Theo Walcott, Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard, with Peter Crouch running the line as the lone centre forward. In theory, Capello’s model had a good balance to it and a suitable blend of both skill and power in the advanced areas of the field, but England struggled to assert themselves on the game and endured a particularly poor first half.
Milner and Carrick, charged with the responsibility of breaking up the Mexican attacking forays as well as retaining possession and distributing the ball to the flanks, were virtually non-existent and both had one of their worst games in an England shirt. Carrick in particular failed to carry out his role with anything approaching efficiency, constantly getting bypassed by the Mexican central players and allowing the back four to be exposed to Mexico’s fast breaks with an alarming regularity.
The defence, although not helped by the ineptitude of the players that were supposed to be screening it, also looked brittle at times, with needlessly narrow and deep defending inviting pressure from an extremely quick Mexican forward line. Rio Ferdinand again looked worryingly laboured and slow to react when faced with the speed and trickery of the likes of Carlos Vela and Giovani Dos Santos, something which will surely cause Capello to weigh up his options at centre-half and give greater consideration to Michael Dawson, who, disappointingly, didn’t get on the pitch at all.
Despite the relative poverty of England’s first-half performance, there were some positives for Capello to take from a largely flat first 45 minutes. Robert Green made a handful of good saves to stake a strong claim for the number one shirt, Theo Walcott caused the apparently tireless Carlos Salcido some problems down the right flank even if he didn’t quite produce the final ball, and, perhaps most importantly, the team still managed to score twice despite looking far from their best (albeit with a little help from a Mexican defence seemingly insistent on giving a live demonstration of the pitfalls of man-marking).
The second period saw Capello make a few changes to personnel, with Joe Hart replacing Rob Green in goal, Jermaine Defoe coming on for Crouch and Jamie Carragher, supposedly in the squad as cover at right-back, somewhat frustratingly being drafted in at centre-half for Rio Ferdinand with both Michael Dawson and Matthew Upson watching forlornly on from the bench.
The most significant change of the evening came on the hour when Tom Huddlestone was brought on for Michael Carrick and England switched to a conventional 4-4-2 with Milner on the left and Gerrard in the middle. This seemed to give England a greater solidity in midfield and afforded the Mexican wide players far less freedom to get in behind and unsettle the full-back pairing of Johnson and Leighton Baines, the Everton man having a difficult time at left-back and will now be left sweating over his place in the squad right up until the last minute.
Gerrard in particular looked much more comfortable in his second-half role, dictating play far more effectively than either Milner or Carrick had before the break as well as building attacks with much more conviction to give his team an added confidence in executing its game plan.
The introduction of Manchester City’s Adam Johnson with five minutes to go also appeared to have a positive effect on the team, even though the young winger was only afforded a few short minutes to make an impression. Johnson ran at the Mexican defence in a refreshingly direct manner and very nearly carved out a goalscoring opportunity for himself late-on. The 22 year-old could well have Joe Cole (who was rested for this game along with the other England players who had featured in the FA Cup Final) fearing for his place in the squad.
Although this was far from being a vintage England performance, a number of things were learned about the squad tonight. It is clear that the 4-2-3-1 system, without Gareth Barry to hold it together, is not a viable system for this team, with Michael Carrick not appearing to be adept enough to dictate the play at international level in the way he does when enjoying his best form for Manchester United.
Furthermore, the omissions of Dawson, Scott Parker and Shaun Wright-Phillips could well be indicative of the shape Capello intends his squad to take as the World Cup draws ever nearer. Carragher is clearly seen as cover both a right-back and centre-half by the Italian, meaning that Dawson is now almost certain to miss out on the trip to South Africa, whilst the versatility of Gerrard and Milner and the clear preference for Aaron Lennon and Theo Walcott on the right side are concerning for both Parker and Wright-Phillips respectively.
Tonight’s performance showed that Capello has a lot of work to do fine-tuning his tactical blueprints before setting off for Rustenburg , but his squad is now as good as set in stone and the basic foundations for what could be a successful tournament this summer have been put in place. This wasn’t England at their best, far from it, but there were signs that, with some work on defensive organisation, 4-4-2 could perhaps be the system that serves England best this summer and maximises the potential of this highly talented group of players. There are, however, still numerous puzzles to be solved and questions to be answered before kick-off on June 12th.