Why England is in trouble (again)
No permanent manager, no permanent captain and, in the grand scheme of things, nothing of note to be positive about for England ahead of Euro 2012.
As it was, a fairly young England side struggled to create clear-cut chances against an experienced Netherlands team on Wednesday at Wembley. There was structure to the team, but its passing was slow and the ball remained too long in defense whenever England won possession -- in short, the Three Lions consistently lacked a man to carry the transition from defense to attack. Although there was a late fight back when 0-2 became 2-2 inside the final 10 minutes, Arjen Robben's second excellent goal of the game snatched the win for the Netherlands in front of a few thousand jubilant, orange-clad Dutch fans who outsang the English support for long periods.
With uncertainty still lingering over the coaching position -- Stuart Pearce? Harry Redknapp? Someone else? -- it's still difficult to even imagine what tactics England will use at Euro 2012. With Wayne Rooney suspended for the first two group games, only three players can be counted as definites to start the opening match against France in June: Joe Hart, Ashley Cole and Wednesday's captain, Scott Parker. Every other position is up for grabs, which is both uplifting and unsettling at a time when England seemingly has moved on to the next generation without yet turning out the lights on its previous crop.
That said, there were some positive factors for Three Lions fans. In stark contrast to the consistency of selection from their opponents (a side largely unchanged from the World Cup final), only three of the 17 English players used -- Steven Gerrard, Gareth Barry and James Milner -- played at the World Cup in South Africa. Emphasizing the lack of a complete transition, there were plenty of youngsters on show despite that the old faces are not out of the picture. Gerrard, Frank Lampard, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand -- the core of the England side that has failed at the highest level in the past decade -- all expect to be involved in Poland and Ukraine. England has not cast aside these players the way Spain did with Raul, for example, or how Jogi Low has unceremoniously called time on Michael Ballack's international career. As such, there's not a particularly obvious set of players for the new coach to work with, meaning that as many as 50 players could be in with a chance of representing England this summer.
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So this game was solely about individuals -- and which players shone? At the back there was little to get excited about. Micah Richards, perhaps the most obvious beneficiary from Fabio Capello's departure, gave a decent performance at right back. But Gary Cahill still doesn't convince at the international level despite his fine finish for England's first goal. Chris Smalling, thankfully fine after suffering an extremely nasty head injury, tracked Klaas-Jan Huntelaar too closely for Robben's opener, then didn't track him closely enough for the Schalke striker's headed goal. Leighton Baines got forward well but looked nervous defensively and was at fault for Robben's winner.
In midfield, we discovered nothing new. Parker will scrap for his life and is probably a decent choice as captain; Barry is solid yet underwhelming when fielded alongside another holding midfielder because he is unable to play incisive passes; and Gerrard still has the potential to carry the side, but a combination of overambitious long balls and minor injuries continue to hamper his international form.
So then we had to look up front, where there were a couple of bright spots. Danny Welbeck was rightly hailed in the British media for his performance and might well be the No. 9 England has lacked since Michael Owen's decline. Most obviously, Welbeck is strong and quick, yet it's his intelligence and technical quality that make him stand out from the lumbering, static target men England has often used alongside Rooney. Welbeck's movement is excellent, constantly drifting into the channels, pulling center backs out of position and creating space for others (though sadly, it generally went unexploited). Furthermore, his link-up play is very good; his performances on loan at Sunderland were notable for his high pass-completion rate -- he's happy doing work outside the box and playing in teammates.
Welbeck has the potential to be a real all-rounder. He is not perfect yet, of course, and there are elements of his game he needs to improve upon -- becoming a more ruthless finisher, for example, and creating more chances for himself. But there is no obvious area in which he will never excel; compare to the way Jermain Defoe isn't an aerial force, Peter Crouch rarely impresses with his movement and Darren Bent will never be good enough at linking play.
The fact that Welbeck can play alone up front yet also combine well with Rooney and/or Javier Hernandez at Manchester United means he is the ideal pick to start the Euros in those games England will be without his United teammate until Rooney's suspension expires.
Continuing the Manchester United connection is Ashley Young, who capped a good all-around performance with a coolly taken equalizer (the pass was provided by yet another United man, Phil Jones). Young has two qualities that his rivals for a wide position lack -- first, good movement. He shares that skill with Welbeck, and this is crucial for England, for the core of the Three Lions' poor attacking play in South Africa was not the personnel, nor necessarily the formation, but the static, boxy nature of their play.
Young constantly tests the opposition -- he drifts inside into the center, then out to the wing, moves forward to reach through-balls yet also comes deep toward the midfield. Left back Baines looked decent when he had space to motor into by virtue of Young's intelligence -- after Gerrard's injury, the left-footed, unsophisticated Adam Johnson moved to that flank, and Baines was no longer a force.
Young also delivers a good dead ball. Recent international tournaments have been played at a slow pace with few goals in open play, meaning that creating chances from set pieces has become extremely important -- particularly for underdogs. It's not inconceivable that England will field an XI without a top-class set-piece taker, and Young would fill that void.
But then, being positive for the sake of it is pointless. Caretaker manager Pearce handled himself well in front of the media but admits he isn't a long-term option. The FA says it is no closer to appointing anyone on a permanent basis and has not yet approached Tottenham Hotspur about Redknapp, the obvious candidate.
All told, it is a farcical situation just three months before a major international tournament. If England was to even vaguely succeed in the summer, it would send a terrible message -- don't have a long-term plan, don't have a permanent manager, don't have a settled group of players. Instead, turn up unprepared and try to fluke your way through.
At this rate, England could do with a real shock in the summer to put into perspective how utterly ridiculous this position is, with the vague hope that it might learn lessons. But then, it is England -- the Three Lions didn't learn in 2000, they didn't learn in 2007, they didn't learn in 2010 and they won't learn in 2012. I suppose we may as well get behind them.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.