World Cup 2014: Ross Barkley and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could make attack best form of defence for England
Ross Barkley and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain performances provided major positives for Roy Hodgson
the sun life stadium
Thursday 05 June 2014
If the movie-style voiceover profiling England prior to kick-off last night is to be believed, then Roy Hodgson has nothing to worry about in Brazil.
"The Three Lions have an arsenal of top players," said the all-American narrator, growling aggressively over a montage of England goals, palpably on a brief hiatus from his film trailer work. "They give it all to succeed… they are England."
Certainly, effort was not in short supply here in Miami and there were positives to be taken from the performances of Ross Barkley and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in particular, but the concerns that arose from last week's 3-0 win over Peru were once again in evidence against Ecuador.
England can change continents but some constants remain. Daytime television here in the United States is littered with adverts for lawyers but even the most celebrated firm would struggle to construct a cogent case for England's defence.
Hodgson rotated as promised, with 10 of the starting line-up changed from England's Wembley send-off –only Wayne Rooney remained, albeit in the much-trailed left-wing position that reveals so much about his demotion from team talisman.
A completely new back five took to the pitch here but that familiar susceptibility to pace and an alarming willingness to afford opposition time and space when counter-attacking remained firmly ensconced in England's DNA.
James Milner was clearly still learning his lines at right-back while Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, who have started only three games together at centre-back for Manchester United and never before with England, were positionally suspect too often for comfort.
Neither Milner nor Smalling covered themselves in glory for Ecuador's early opener, as Walter Ayovi evaded the former to deliver a fine cross that Enner Valencia powered past a helpless Ben Foster.
Ecuador's limitations in the final third restricted them to only 20 goals in 16 qualifying matches to reach the World Cup finals but, just as Peru had managed last week, England were compromised on several occasions.
Jefferson Montero regularly had the beating of Milner while Valencia burst clear from a simple through ball only to stab his effort wide with Foster rushing out to narrow the angle.
This was not quite the idyllic preparation Hodgson envisaged. England can consider themselves unfortunate in one sense to visit Portugal and Miami only to witness more rain than sun but, then again, the hurricane season officially begins on 1 June in the Sunshine state and inclement weather is not unheard of.
At 23C, the temperature was four degrees cooler at kick-off than it had been for training yesterday and, with only 21,534 fans inside the Sun Life Stadium, this was hardly a passable replication of what awaits England in Manaus.
England's defensive woes continued after the interval. Valencia hit the post with England's defence splayed before substitute Michael Arroyo took advantage of a lack of pressing in midfield to restore parity.
Substitute Raheem Sterling's red card for a reckless tackle on Antonio Valencia, also dismissed for his reaction, was another black mark for Hodgson in a game that, somewhat oddly, ended with the two players now ineligible for Brazil, John Stones and Jon Flanagan, at full-back.
Hodgson would no doubt expect better of his first-choice defence but England have kept only eight clean sheets in 21 matches since Euro 2012 and there was nothing from the supporting cast here, with Luke Shaw the best of a bad bunch, to suggest the England manager has any viable alternatives.
Jack Wilshere and Frank Lampard proved little better than Hodgson's other options in providing defensive cover from midfield, too.
There was, however, plenty to like about England in attack. Perhaps they will have to win every game 4-3, invoking the spirit of Kevin Keegan's Newcastle side from the mid-1990s in the process.
Barkley was fearless in possession. Not everything he tried came off but there was a refreshing unpredictability about England in the final third due to his willingness to create without fear of failure.
Oxlade-Chamberlain frequently attacked with verve and purpose, including one first-half moment when he bypassed Frickson Erazo and Ayovi before cutting the ball back to Lampard, whose shot drifted harmlessly wide.
The Arsenal midfielder, starting his first England game since May 2013, made a pressing case for inclusion alongside Barkley, with Rooney again a more peripheral figure, if at least improving on Friday's anonymous showing against Peru.
It was an entertaining affair but one that leaves Hodgson with plenty to ponder and time running out to rectify several outstanding issues.
The full-time whistle preceded the return of that voiceover, advertising a pre-season competition and the chance to witness the "Gods of Soccer". England's defence was certainly holier than desirable.
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