17th October 2012 marked 39 years to the day since the goalkeeping heroics of Poland’s Jan Tomaszewski kept Sir Alf Ramsey’s England at bay and ensured that Kazimierz Górski’s much heralded Poland side of the 1970s qualified for the 1974 World Cup in West Germany.
That night, just as Wednesday afternoon’s delayed damp squib at the thankfully fully covered National Stadium in Warsaw, ended in a 1-1 stalemate. But the events on that autumnal night in 1973 at Wembley were to be a decisive one for both parties concerned. Whilst it marked the arrival of Poland onto the European football stage, it simultaneously signalled the departure of England’s only World Cup winning manager, thus closing the chapter on England’s most fruitful period in international football – a period that has since cast a large shadow over the heads of Ramsey’s successors.
Since then, questions regarding England’s style of play and technical aptitude have been discussed in great breadth and depth. But for Roy Hodgson, who’s still very much in the infancy of his reign as England manager, these same questions are now becoming of increased importance following the rise and rise of Spanish and German football, in particular. So we ask ourselves, how much progress has been made under the Hodgson, Lewington and Neville regime? The answer: small but important steps.
There’s no doubt that since Hodgson’s appointment in May, England have become harder to break down, as fans of Fulham and West Bromwich Albion can testify. In his 11 games in charge, England have so far only conceded 5 goals. But for all their discipline, industry and work-rate, something which has rarely been a problem for England players, Hodgson’s England lack spark, invention and sophistication – partly due to the persistence of playing in an outmoded and rigid 4-4-2 formation and partly because of the lack of a creative brain in what is, to all intents and purposes, a functional midfield.
The contrast on Wednesday afternoon could not have been greater. Whilst captain Steven Gerrard was too often found picking up the ball in the deep-lying quarterback role and the wasteful Michael Carrick again struggled to impose himself in an England game, Poland’s midfield, manned by the combative Eugen Polanski, was given licence to attack, especially down the right wing where the impressive duo of Kamil Grosicki, deputizing for Poland’s injured captain Jakub BÅ‚aszczykowski, and Åukasz Piszczek, had Ashley Cole on tenterhooks throughout the 82 minutes that Grosicki was on the field. Fortunately for England, the highly sought-after Polish striker Robert Lewandowski cut an isolated figure and had only a few attempts on Joe Hart’s goal. More potent attacking sides than Poland will not let their chances on goal go unpunished.
And if possession is indeed nine-tenths of the law, then England continue to lag well behind Europe’s elite in that department. For most of the second half, the statuesque England midfield was outpassed, outran and outthought by the team ranked 49 places below them in the dubious FIFA World Rankings.
Very few of England’s players showed the necessary poise, intelligence or technical aptitude needed to control and thrive in the game. There was little evidence of ‘pass and move – pace and passing ability’ whilst the tempo of England’s play was painfully lethargic. Perhaps the supporters and viewers could’ve done with some of the sleeping pills that were administered to the England players on the eve of Wednesday’s game. Whether the Football Association’s new multi-million pound national football centre for coaching and development at St George’s Park will be able to find the cure to this disease, remains to be seen.
But for all the criticism, some unjust and some from those who are still bitter at the Football Association’s slight against Harry Redknapp, Hodgson has not been afraid to blood youngsters into international football – something which Fabio Capello was always reluctant to do during his stewardship of the National side.
And whilst many viewed Friday evening’s mismatch against San Marino as nothing more than a futile game of football, it provided the likes of Tom Cleverley, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Danny Welbeck, amongst others, with an invaluable experience of playing in front of a capacity crowd at Wembley and served as reassuring evidence that competition for first-team places has once again returned to the England set-up.
The campaign bandwagon next springs into action in March with an away double beginning against San Marino followed by a tricky tie against Stefan Jovetic’s Montenegro – a side which Wayne Rooney knows all too well.
England should still secure automatic qualification as winners of 2014 World Cup Qualification Group H, however both Wednesday evening’s and last month’s lacklustre display against Ukraine suggests that their path may not be quite as straightforward as when the draw was first made last July.
For Roy Hodgson and England, the wind of change that was to supposed to usher in a new dawn for English football, can, on current evidence, best be described as light and breezy but with the potential to pick up.