Before posting something more substantive later in the week I thought I’d post a short response or two to England’s game this evening. I have to keep myself in check a little when talking about the national team, sometimes, to avoid sounding overly cynical – my attitude to them is somewhat ambivalent at the best of times, although I tend to find myself pulling for them in the latter stages of a tournament when facing fellow ‘big guns’. In Gelsenkirchen four years ago I was as wrapped up in things as anybody and I suspect it’ll end up being the same later on in South Africa. Most of all I find myself more interested in a transfixing game of football, though, and have little interest in seeing lesser lights bludgeoned aside by a bunch of competent Premier League players (I exclude the charming Theo Walcott, who I can only want to do well at all times given that he’s so excellent to deal with at Arsenal). Variation, both on the pitch and in terms of end result, is crucial if the international game is going to stay relevant.
This evening’s match went pretty much as expected. Mexico threatening – more so than in previous years, I think, because they’ve added some genuine pace and trickery to a measured passing game – and in control for long periods, but England defending the edge of the box well, breaking at speed and ultimately grinding their way ahead through two of the more uninspiring goals you’ll see. I wonder whether any international side has scored a higher percentage of its goals through set-pieces over the past decade. But still, you play to your strengths and England remain ahead of many of their rivals in this area – one which may well be decisive and will almost certainly be the undoing of attractive second-tier sides like Mexico and Chile when they come up against the better sides next month.
Those two sides, actually, will give us plenty of joy in the early stages of the World Cup before being muscled aside – hopefully not before the second phase. As I say, Mexico have players to behold in Dos Santos, Vela, Barrera and their attacking full-backs – and look how attacker-heavy Aguirre’s squad is as a whole – while I’d like to write more about an intriguing Chile side before the tournament if I can (in fact, I spent much of today doing this for the Arsenal magazine’s World Cup edition). But you always feel that England will be functional enough in matches such as this, riding their luck once or twice before letting a dead ball or two do the work – the second-round match against Ecuador in 2006 is a not entirely dissimilar example. Apologies to Glen Johnson, though, because this evening’s was of course an excellent strike and if replicated in South Africa then all the better.
Usually that’s enough to beat you a path to the quarter-finals before a cagey slugfest against another ‘power’ in the last eight, but I’m quite intrigued by the physical and tactical challenges that any of Germany, Ghana, Australia and Serbia would present in the last 16 this time around. The slugfest may come early – and, to be fair, Capello’s side won’t fail for lack of hard work and discipline. Generally, the suspect Leighton Baines aside, the defending by the back four was actually alright this evening amid a genuine test. The holding midfield position, which has usurpsed the ‘left-sided problem’ for occupation of tired column-inches, looks some way from being filled to satisfaction though – Mexico’s deep-dropping forwards were too canny for an invisible Carrick tonight and more hopes might hang on Gareth Barry than people might possibly have imagined, because that area of the pitch will be pivotal for certain.
More of the same against Japan? Probably, but an easier win – perhaps 2-0 “At Altitude!!” with half the scares. More of the same, undoubtedly, from ITV’s commentary team as well. Andy Townsend’s masterclass in reverting to textbook descriptions of each player when asked how they’d performed was something to behold, while I’ve given up criticising Peter Drury even if his clear confusion that Mexico had snatched a perfectly legitimate goal was..well…you know. I’ll not be missing any of that while in South Africa, for certain – and, with vuvuzela-induced tinnitus highly likely by the time I return, perhaps for even longer.