Slovenia 0 England 1
Slovenia: S. Handanovic; Brecko, Suler, Cesar, Jokic; Birsa, Radosavljevic, Koren, Kirm (Matavz 79); Ljubijankic (Dedic 62), Novakovic
England: James; Johnson, Terry, Upson, A. Col; Milner, Lampard, Barry, Gerrard; Rooney (J. Cole 72), Defoe (Heskey 86)
After two poor performances against the USA and Algeria, this afternoon’s clash with Slovenia in Port Elizabeth was England’s final chance to secure qualification from Group C, something they did with an improved and yet still somewhat unimpressive display against Matjaz Kek’s side, ultimately running out 1-0 winners to finish second to the USA.
It’s still 4-4-2, but…
Flying in the face of vehement public opinion Fabio Capello opted to stick with his much-maligned 4-4-2 system, making three changes to the eleven that started against Algeria with Matthew Upson replacing the suspended Jamie Carragher, James Milner coming in for Aaron Lennon on the right side of midfield and Jermain Defoe getting the nod ahead of Emile Heskey.
Although the formation was the same, Capello had clearly made a number of minor alterations to the spaces which some of his players should look to occupy.
Most noticeable was Milner and Steven Gerrard’s willingness to stay on their flanks, occupying the Slovenian full-backs and preventing the team from getting extremely narrow as they had done so disastrously against the Algerians.
Indeed, it was Milner’s movement and crossing ability that directly resulted in the only goal of the game, his pinpoint cross finding Defoe who had made an intelligent run between the Slovenian centre-halves who looked disorganised all afternoon.
With the wide players fulfilling their roles more efficiently, Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole were able to play a more natural game, getting forward to good effect and, for arguably the first time in the competition, really added an extra pace and width to English forays into the Slovenian half.
The passing stats from the game clearly bear out the influence of the full-back pairing, Johnson having completed more passes than anyone else (62) with Cole (50) a close second.
Their excellent movement was a key feature of England’s game plan, communicating well with the wide midfielders to double-up on their opposite numbers going forward and unbalancing the Slovenian 4-4-2 to prevent the two systems cancelling each other out.
Still cause for concern
There were a number of positives for England to draw from their performance, but equally there were areas of concern in terms of the team’s passing ability and sharpness in front of goal.
The team continued to demonstrate a reluctance to get the ball down and play it on the floor, displaying a worrying lack of patience in passing the ball to one another, seemingly desperate to get forward when in possession without taking the time to pick holes in the Slovenian back line.
Make no mistake, Capello’s team passed the ball better than they had done in their opening two fixtures but were still shy of the quality that should be expected at this level. England should be admired for the high tempo which they maintained throughout the game, but the fast pace they favoured did, predictably, result in some rushed movement of the ball from defence to attack.
Perhaps we are guilty of expecting too much from England, but considering the quality of players in the squad there was still a disappointing lack of creativity. All too often did the centre-halves bypass the midfield with long balls aimed at Defoe and Rooney, players short in stature and hardly likely to out jump the Slovenian defence, the likes of Lampard and Gerrard not having their creative instincts fully harnessed.
Improvements made, but more needed
This was certainly a better performance from a more balanced England side than we had seen in the early stages of the competition, but if the team are to build on today’s performance and kick on to do greater things in this tournament they will need to improve yet further.
The players still look technically deficient in comparison to many of the other teams that are likely to join them in the last 16 and, even though the defence is currently looking strong, could be overrun in midfield and out-thought by more streetwise opponents.
Today represented an upturn in England’s fortunes, but they will have to show a greater cohesion and ability on the break as well as come up with more than one way to break their opponents down if they are to progress beyond a likely second round clash with Germany or Ghana.