Estonia vs England: Three Lions have a plan – but should not forget passion

COMMENT: England might want to keep the ball but they should quicken the pace

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The Independent Online

In the quest for identity and greater technical range, it occurs that England might need to relocate their soul.

In the endless recycling of possession against 10 limited men of Estonia the quality England needed most was some old-fashioned grunt to shove the opposition aside.

All you ask as an England fan is for the pulse to quicken. All too frequently in the vast emptiness of international representation post 1966 the output has been unimaginative, the experience flat. The rhythms of a Saturday afternoon are so rarely replicated by our footballers on England duty.

Reasons now familiar are rolled out to account for this, ranging from coaching inadequacies to deficits in technique to under-representation of Englishmen in the upper tier of the domestic game. The present England manager, Roy Hodgson, still seen by some as part of the problem, accepts the talent pool is not deep but does not buy into ideas of technical inferiority.

The early exit from the World Cup in the summer hardly added weight to his claims but four successive victories of varying satisfaction hint at a formula being found. But it would be a mistake to ignore the rolled-up sleeve when finesse is not working.

There were times last night when a long ball to a tall head at the far post might have been more productive. If nothing else the tactical regression would have represented an unsettling change of pace. It need not have been forever and it would not necessarily have compromised the greater  aesthetic goal.

Hodgson is not the avuncular old duffer of caricature. He lays claims to modernity in the clarity of his thought and the breadth of his aims. But an old idea can sometimes be good, too.

Like his oval-ball counterpart Stuart Lancaster, Hodgson is tasked with establishing a clear philosophy and more vibrant culture. English rugby has deeper resources than any other nation, but has consistently failed to produce a side that makes the heart beat faster.

Lancaster identified the need for quick ball, intelligent movement within a playing style that all understood and more than that, bought into. Ditto Hodgson. At the heart of his scheme is control of the ball in the middle of the park through consistency of selection and vision. Personnel are  important, but no more so than shape  and strategy.

And so Fabian Delph comes in for James Milner, Adam Lallana for Raheem Sterling without disturbing the equilibrium of the team. Hodgson is in that phase of the development of the scheme where performance is almost as important as the result.

There were times in Tallinn where England looked like a team with a plan. There was cohesion and purpose. The ball was recycled at pace in a manner consistent with the stuff we see on a Saturday afternoon. The moment they truly replicate the cut and thrust of a Premier League afternoon we will be in business.

But then the chain came off. What should have been an advantage when Estonia went down to 10 men became a problem. The home side redoubled their rearguard effort and England failed to respond mentally as well as physically. 

Wayne Rooney in particular suffered as England lost their tempo. But he remains England’s spiritual focal point around whom the team ethic is forged. When the goal went in with 16 minutes to go it was as if dad had turned up and sorted out the mess. And how pleased the kids were to see him.

Jack Wilshere spoke eloquently after the San Marino walkover about the camaraderie among this group, about not being touched by past failures and the opportunity to script a different narrative for the national team. And he identified Rooney as the symbolic centre of England’s renewal.

The sense of togetherness was evident when the goal went in. It was more than relief at an awkward engagement turning significantly in England’s favour. Rooney made the difference when it mattered. It was not one of his better games. In fact he was about to be taken off when the decisive moment arrived. Hodgson got lucky, his skipper stood up and the whole ensemble gets to reflect on an unblemished start to the European qualifying campaign.

Wilshere provided the diamond’s sharpest edge. Hodgson will not have a label thrust up on any of his middle men, so wobetide any who attempts to qualify Wilshere as a defensive midfielder. The manager acknowledges the importance of the position but does not want to pigeonhole any one player in it.

Wilshere is far more dangerous attacking the opponent’s box since his quick feet boast the potential to go past players from central positions. This is a quality too few Englishmen have and it is wasted if Wilshere is manning the dustpan and brush sweeping up in front of the defence.

His intelligent probing seeking the killer pass was one of the highlights of a first half in which England fizzed the ball about with intent. All those hours watching clips of Xabi Alonso are well and good but  the man to whom he owes the greatest stylish debt is former Arsenal colleague Cesc Fabregas, who has made a can opener of that right foot in the final third.

As inveterate sufferers on the international stage, none will be content until England start mashing teams like Estonia home and away. Hodgson nicked this one to buy himself more time for his project.

The appearance of Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain to run at tired legs late in the game and the electric twists of Raheem Sterling surely presage a special night sooner rather than later. In the meantime Hodgson deserves our patience.

It is five years since they won four on the spin. As Hodgson has said, he can beat only the teams in front of him. The hope must be that each victory augments belief and deepens that intangible bonding agent we call team spirit. Oh, and don’t forget there is always the bulldog to unleash when the beautiful game eludes us.

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Estonia v England key match stats

43 - Wayne Rooney’s England goals – just one behind Jimmy Greaves’ total

455 - England have gone 455 minutes without conceding a goal, since Luis Suarez’s winner for Uruguay in June

5 - Jack Wilshere created five scoring opportunities versus Estonia, more than any other player in the match

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