Passing, pace and poise: the lost essentials of England

Racism storm overshadows Beckham's descent from galactico status and the lunacy of Rooney
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The Independent Football

A dreadful performance that deserved worse than a 1-0 defeat and generated new criticism of the coach and his supposedly powerful football nation, mitigated only by the unusual circumstances of the game. It was a bad week for Carlos Alberto Parreira and his Brazil team, humbled by Ecuador in a World Cup qualifying tie played 9,000 feet above sea level.

A dreadful performance that deserved worse than a 1-0 defeat and generated new criticism of the coach and his supposedly powerful football nation, mitigated only by the unusual circumstances of the game. It was a bad week for Carlos Alberto Parreira and his Brazil team, humbled by Ecuador in a World Cup qualifying tie played 9,000 feet above sea level.

And, yes, for Sven Goran Eriksson's England, who may have faced stronger opposition at the Bernabeu, but came up alarmingly short in Wednesday night's loss by the same scoreline when finally encountering a team ranked in Fifa's top 20 - for the first time since last summer's defeats by France and Portugal. Spain's veteran coach, Luis Aragones, in one of his less contentious statements, had called it a contest for the Under-Achievers' Shield; a match, in fact, that would have taken place in Lisbon last June as a Euro 2004 quarter-final had the Spanish not underperformed as usual and lost out to Greece and the hosts.

What Aragones has done since subsequently replacing Inaki Saez - apart from helping set race relations back a decade or two - is bring in some younger players to freshen up a tired side: Asier Del Horno, Wednesday's goalscorer, in defence, Arsenal's Jose Antonio Reyes in attack and Miguel Angulo and Pablo, given their first caps as substitutes. Despite mixed results in the World Cup qualifying group, he believes the advent of bright young wingers to be a key improvement.

There was a revealing moment in each half of the game that illustrated the contrast between the two teams in that area. Midway through the first half, the dazzling little Barcelona midfielder Xavi played a classic pass inside the full-back to send Joaquin racing away from Ashley Cole - who is not slow - for a cross that Gary Neville just managed to turn away for one of many Spanish corners.

Early in the second period, Alan Smith played the same ball for England's wide-right player. Shaun Wright-Phillips would have got it and been away; David Beckham, excellent when used centrally during Wright-Phillips's debut against Ukraine in August, but never a sprinter and now giving one of the worst of his 77 international performances, was easily beaten to it by Del Horno.

Wright-Phillips, quick, elusive and a good marksman, has now been given three brief appearances as a substitute - despite scoring an outstanding goal in the first of them. Meanwhile, Middlesbrough's winger Stewart Downing was left with the Under-21 side "because we all agreed it was better [for him] to get 90 minutes with them", Eriksson said last Tuesday. Whereupon he played for half an hour in a low-key friendly in front of a crowd estimated at 3,000.

"They are young players," the head coach insisted after Wednesday's game had so cruelly shown up England's inferiority down the flanks. "I don't think we should say tomorrow they're ready to play 90 minutes. In February we have the chance [a friendly at home to Holland]. We'll watch Downing, and if he goes on like this, then maybe..."

Asked last week to compare his current side with the one who went out at the standard quarter-final stage of the last World Cup, Eriksson claimed they were better, possessing "more pace and exper-ience". Greater experience is evident, since the class of 2002 were a comparatively young group. But pace? Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Gary Neville, replacing Emile Heskey, Trevor Sinclair, Paul Scholes and Danny Mills, may have all brought something to the party, but not speed over the ground, with or without the ball.

When Holland visit Villa Park in February, Gerrard will be available, though unless Nicky Butt can improve the standard of Wednesday's performance, the Liverpool man might be needed as the holding midfielder. Butt's passing was as bad as anyone's, which was saying something on a night when moving the ball from one white shirt to another proved inexplicably difficult.

"In the first half, Spain were much better than we were," Eriksson said. (Only the first half?) "I have to admit that, even though it hurts. They kept the ball much, much better than we did and once we got the ball we couldn't keep it."

At any level of football that is a recipe for calamity, a point which would normally have been made in the brief half-time interval. But it transpires that most of the valuable time was spent trying to cool down some of the hotter heads. As well as Rooney, who had presumably already taken off the rest of his kit as well as the black armband by then, Cole (whether or not put on edge by the racist chanting) looked determined to prove so-called meaningless friendlies to be neither meaningless nor friendly; while Manchester United's Neville and Chelsea's Lampard seemed keen to reduce their championship rival Reyes to a hobbling wreck.

"At half-time we didn't talk very much about football," Eriksson admitted. "I said we couldn't lose our heads. If you do, you can't recover it. Wayne will behave himself in future, I'm not worried about that. What I don't like is if a player comes off and another comes on, even if you're subbed and don't agree with it, you wish one another good luck. If you're professional, you have to. We told them to be aggressive, not be stupid."

The same message clearly needs to be imparted, again, to Chelsea's full-back Glen Johnson, sent off for the second time while playing for the Under-21s, his second yellow card being given for sarcastically applauding the referee.

As for Rooney, it is in United's interests as much as England's for him to learn quickly about bulls and china shops. At least the teenager will have plenty of chances to practise what is being preached to him during his club's hectic schedule, with 10 games in 39 days once December opens with the latest set-to against Arsenal.

Meanwhile, Eriksson ("that's the bad thing with this job") must endure three months without even so much as a get-together at a health farm to take his mind off a thoroughly depressing night. Perhaps a mutually sympathetic telephone call to Carlos Alberto Parreira would help.

"When we meet Spain, France, Portugal, Germany, or Brazil and Argentina, the big football nations, we must play very, very well to beat them," he said. "If we want to beat those countries, we have to play better and we will play better. The difference is nothing."

On Wednesday, it was one-nothing, and should have been a great deal more.

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