Fabio Capello admitted that England were far from the finished article last night after a 3-1 victory over fellow World Cup qualifiers Mexico was undermined by a lack of midfield intensity and defensive lapses which the manager knows could be punished dearly in South Africa next month.
Peter Crouch's 21st goal in 38 internationals seriously promoted his case to pay a leading role in South Africa, on a night when Emile Heskey was not deployed alongside Wayne Rooney, as did the back-post header from the Tottenham striker which set up Ledley King's opener. But King, who later admitted it had "not been one of his better games," suffered several defensive lapses and Capello was unhappy by a lack of aggression which allowed Mexico too much possession during a first half during which they might have scored three times.
"We have to press more," said Capello. "Not all the teams we play against will play like this – this was a different style. But you know that, for me, it's very important to press the ball and win it back quickly."
Michael Carrick's performance was particularly disappointing and Capello, who will learn today whether Gareth Barry's has recovered from ankle ligament damage to be able to play a part in the 23-man final squad, was forced to move Steven Gerrard into a central midfield role after the break, which created more solidity, moving James Milner out to the left. "I changed it after half-time and [Steven] played very well," Capello said. "He's a really good player and can play in midfield, as a No10, in different positions. I learned that something more you have to do during the game in midfield. He can play there with [Frank] Lampard, but we have to wait and see which players will be fit."
Capello hinted that he was not happy with the central midfield combination of Milner and Carrick, with Tom Huddlestone arriving in place of the Manchester United player on the hour. "It was not an easy game to play against. Mexico had a lot of touches, a lot of movement with the ball, really good, and normally our players [including Barry] are really good in midfield. We never suffered a lot during World Cup qualification. This time, I put two different players in, like Milner who's played in midfield this year, and Carrick. But you know more things about their movement with or without the ball when you watch them play. The level of the quality of the players in a World Cup is normally really high."
The latest Rooney injury concern saw the striker ask to leave the field with a neck problem two minutes before the end. "He said he had a small problem in his neck, but no problem," Capello said. "He wanted to come off. I'd made all the substitutions so it was impossible to change. But it was only his neck. No problems. Rooney is OK, no? No problems. He needs at this moment to play and find his good form."
Though Glen Johnson also scored a superb goal, weaving through the Mexican defence to unleash a left-foot shot just after the interval, he also gave Capello grounds for concern defensively and Leighton Baines looked particularly troubled at left-back. But on the positive side, Manchester City's Adam Johnson offered a glimpse of his threat despite having only six minutes to demonstrate his worth and Theo Walcott also several tantalising glimpses of is ability to unlock a game.
Despite hints that he might be ready to change's his formation to deploy Rooney as a solitary striker served by two wingers, Capello started with a 4-4-2 formation and opted to use Glen Johnson at right back rather than Jamie Carragher, whose opportunity arrived when Rio Ferdinand was substituted at half time. Carragher was subjected to mild boos when he ran on.
King's first England goal in six years came on 17 minutes, with Crouch doubling it on 35 minutes, though he was offside when Rooney sent a header against the bar which rebounded onto his arm and into the net. Guillermo Franco earned Mexico's deserved reply just before the break but Johnson's first goal in an England jersey followed two minutes after half time.