For you, Fabio Capello, the honeymoon is over. The reality of managing the England football team is, unfortunately, nights such as this from which we will remember David Beckham's 100th cap but not David Beckham's performance which, like that of so many of his team-mates, like so much from this team in recent years, was instantly forgettable.
Forgettable and regrettable on a night when the only celebrations were for Beckham's milestone on a road that, for England, currently seems to be leading absolutely nowhere. Capello put a sweetening gloss on the most moribund of performances with the insistence that he is learning about this team. But when he abandons this latest set of plans, what exactly will he be left with to fine-tune for the Czech Republic friendly on 20 August when, he says, things get serious?
At times last night, £6m a year must have seemed rather too cheap for a man who is charged with making England a credible force once again in world football. Franck Ribéry's penalty in the 32nd minute decided the match and, for periods, England passed the ball well in midfield. But the Bayern Munich winger and Nicolas Anelka were the difference between the mediocrity of England's attacking players and the pace and menace of the French when they went forward.
To Capello's enduring credit he substituted four of his biggest names at half-time; Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Joe Cole and John Terry were brought off as he junked the 4-2-3-1 system for a more familiar 4-4-2 formation. It was not Rooney's idea to play alone up front but it takes some doing to reduce one of the most effective players in the Premier League to a peripheral figure, as he was for the first half last night.
That particular approach, Rooney on his own in attack with Gerrard lurking behind him, can surely be struck from Capello's list of bright ideas. There is no shame in losing to this accomplished, skilful French team in Paris, but England did precious little to indicate they are a team about to turn the corner. France were without Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Karim Benzema among others and in the circumstances any Englishman in the place had to be thankful for that.
They did at least witness Beckham's 100th cap, a collector's item for the travelling support, even if the 32-year-old's performance did not justify a place in posterity. When Beckham's name was announced at the start of the match there was a cheer from all corners of the stadium. When he left on 62 minutes there was a standing ovation and there was very little in between. It is astonishing how the French have fallen for this too, especially when you consider that Lilian Thuram was winning his 138th cap last night.
Beckham managed another footnote in the history of English football last night when a first-half booking made him the England international with the worst disciplinary record of all-time – 16 yellow cards and two red. His tug on the shirt of Ribéry was the pure frustration of a man who could not keep pace with his opponent, but at least the Football Association's Respect campaign precluded Beckham from remonstrating with the referee.
It did not help that the game was played against the backdrop of a home crowd who were about as raucous as your average up-market Parisian brasserie: it must be nice to be able to take it for granted that they have such a talented and successful football team. At 28, Anelka seems to have lost none of the pace that enabled him to destroy England single-handedly at the old Wembley nine years earlier; he did much the same to the England defence last night.
In 1999, Anelka was still a teenager at Arsenal; now he knows even better the way through a hesitant English defence. The breakthrough came for France with François Clerc's through-ball on 31 minutes. From there John Terry attempted to play Anelka offside by stepping up but his Chelsea team-mate was too fleet-footed. He stayed in line and timed his run to perfection.
Perhaps it was the new pitch that has been laid at Stade de France since the last rugby international that caused the ball to slow; it looked at one point that David James would win the race to get their first. Instead Anelka slipped it round the goalkeeper, who could only upend the striker with the kind of challenge that would have earned him a red card in the Premier League. The German referee showed some sympathy on that count and did not book James – Ribéry showed none when dispatching the penalty.
Among England's better performers were Owen Hargreaves and, when they came on in the second half, Stewart Downing and Peter Crouch. Frank Lampard was taken ill yesterday and stayed at the hotel, Jonathan Woodgate suffered a hamstring injury before the game and then there were a few more who will wish that a convenient illness could have spared them one of the most mediocre evenings in the team's recent history.
Wes Brown had one of his worst nights at right-back, with misplaced passes and miskicks. Ashley Cole failed to deliver a single telling cross into the box, which might have proved decisive in the closing stages with Crouch imposing himself on the French defence. Downing had a half chance in the second half when Gareth Barry's ball over the top found him, but he never brought it under control. Other than that, England's chances were thin on the ground. Beckham flailed a leg when Ashley Cole struck a first-half cross through the penalty area but never looked close to connecting. Rooney glanced a header straight at Grégory Coupet. Michael Owen came on to partner Crouch in the second half and barely got a sight of goal. Unfortunately, there had been no pace on the wings in the first half and there was very little once Capello had made his changes.
From a charitable point of view it is for the best that Capello knows what does not work before the World Cup qualifiers begin in September. A more pertinent question he will be asking himself now is what exactly does work for this England team? It is still early for the new manager but last night felt far too similar at times to the old dog days of former regimes when all hope had passed. It is a road England cannot take again.
France (4-4-2): Coupet (Lyons); Clerc (Lyons), Thuram (Barcelona), Gallas (Arsenal), Abidal (Barcelona); Ribéry (Bayern Munich), Makelele (Chelsea), Toulalan (Lyons), Malouda (Chelsea); Anelka (Chelsea), Trezeguet (Juventus). Substitutes used: Cissé (Marseilles), for Anelka, 80; Govou (Lyons), for Trezeguet, 64.
England (4-2-3-1): James (Portsmouth); Brown (Manchester United), Terry (Chelsea), Ferdinand (Manchester United), A Cole (Chelsea); Barry (Aston Villa), Hargreaves (Manchester United); Beckham (LA Galaxy), Gerrard (Liverpool), J Cole (Chelsea); Rooney (Manchester United). Substitutes used: Johnson (Portsmouth), Lescott (Everton), for Terry, h-t; Bentley (Blackburn), for Beckham, 62; Downing (Middlesbrough), for J Cole, h-t; Owen (Newcastle), for Rooney, h-t; Crouch (Liverpool), for Gerrard, h-t.
Referee: F Meyer (Germany).Reuse content