Despite the fiasco of the Rio Ferdinand affair, in which he was largely at the mercy of others, Roy Hodgson has brought a relaxed professionalism to this England team and this was evident tonight as he and his players kept their focus and were rewarded.
It is easy for players to become sloppy in mis-matches such as this, and for managers to be too clever. Many years ago, in a similar fixture in Luxembourg, Glenn Hoddle selected a then-youthful and still enthusiastic Ferdinand to play on the right of a back three, reasoning that he would get plenty of possession and had the ability to make the most of it. England won that match 3-0 and Ferdinand did well enough, but it was a laboured performance, embellished by a penalty and a last-minute goal.
So many of these matches are when managers fiddle with selection and formation in much the same way as it often backfires when cricket teams re-jig the batting line-up in pursuit of quick runs. So Hodgson picked an attacking, but well-balanced, conventional team. With adventurous full-backs, lively wide players and sharp-shooting midfielders, there was no need for Wayne Rooney and Jermain Defoe to feel the goalscoring burden depended on them. Goals mattered because group positions – should teams finish level – will be determined by matches against all teams in the group.
There is no denying this was one of those easy games coaches claim do not exist but which crop up in qualifiers. Bulgaria had set the standard last night, putting six past Malta in Sofia with Austria following suit against the Faroes, but elsewhere it was more difficult. Turkey only won 2-0 in Andorra, and Germany 3-0 in Kazakhstan while Spain were held by Finland.
That underlined it is not always easy to break down a packed, well-drilled defence whose sole aim is to keep the score down. The superior team is given free rein in three-quarters of the pitch but encounters a mass of bodies when it approaches the penalty area. In the circumstances quick movement, of ball and personnel, is required to create space.
The shrewdest part of Hodgson’s selection was on the flanks. Neither Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain nor Ashley Young are touchline huggers, both are comfortable drifting inside with or without the ball. This creates a quandary for their marker – do you track your man or pass him on to a team-mate. If it is the former, space is created for an attacking full-back, and few are more comfortable going forward than Kyle Walker and Leighton Baines.
Both were into advanced positions early on and continued to press on, but only Baines made the most of his space. While Walker showed his inexperience, repeatedly wandering in to hunt the ball and a goal, leaving team-mates frustrated as they looked to play the ball wide, Baines stayed on the touchline. He set up the first, third and fifth goals with crosses from the left, one whipped in first time, the others cut back.
When Walker stayed wide he was effective, working the pass patiently for Oxlade-Chamberlain’s second goal. He later made a strong break to the byline for Defoe’s second.
Inside them Oxlade-Chamberlain had shown the cleverness of his movement cutting inside to hit the bar before his well-taken goal. Frank Lampard, too, had made one of his trademark late runs into the box, but had his short blocked before he slotted in Rooney’s pass for his goal.
By this stage it was all too easy, but England’s quick passing and inventive movement deserved admiration, and augured well for the future, whatever the abysmal level of the opposition.
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