There were times on Tuesday night when the praise heaped on the England team for their performance against Scotland simply mystified me. I sat in front of the television hoping to see a team that had learnt to conserve possession, but by half-time I felt exasperated with England.
All I could see was the same old mistakes: possession given away time and time again, and a team so careless that they would find it hard to live with the best in the world. There were moments of quality – Wayne Rooney’s two goals and Jack Wilshere’s cross for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – but for much of the game it was a frantic race for both sides to win the ball back after possession had been squandered.
My overall view of the Scotland v England game? It was like a game between one mid-ranking Championship club, England, and another low-ranking Championship club. If that sounds harsh then it is to the Championship I should be apologising. In the upper reaches of that division there are teams that can play a bit of football.
The issues have not changed for me. Wilshere gave the ball away too often. Oxlade-Chamberlain kept misjudging simple passes. Even the dependable James Milner kept losing possession. Where would England be without the goals of Rooney? At the moment they are simply a Second Division international team. Without Rooney it would be that much worse.
I have seen Roy Hodgson’s comments about the intensity of his team when it comes to winning the ball back, the “five-second furies” as he calls them. One thing is for sure: they get plenty of practice at winning the ball back because they give it away so often.
Where is the finesse? England need to control possession. They need to keep the ball and dictate the game. It is never acceptable to give away possession of the ball cheaply. The only saving grace is that they were doing it against Slovenia at Wembley, or a Scotland team that has seven Championship players in the starting XI.
It will be a different story when England play against teams like Germany, Spain or Brazil. They will be waiting a lot longer than five seconds to get the ball back then. In those games, the punishment for losing possession of the ball is that much more severe.
The problem seems to be related to a more general attitude. To explain that, you need to go back to the build-up to the game. I read a lot going into the Scotland match in particular about the need for intensity. About dealing with the atmosphere. About tackling and chasing and hustling and running. About silencing the crowd and proving the England players were every bit as passionate as their Scottish counterparts.
Whatever happened to just passing the ball well? It is typical of England that a game can be boiled down to who tackles the most, about the importance of the physical contest. How about keeping the ball? That is what the best teams in the world do. They do not get caught up in an endless cycle of giving it away and ploughing heroically into tackles to win it back.
Aside from the performances of Rooney and Danny Welbeck, I did not see a lot in this England team. They were fortunate that Scotland presented little or no threat in attack.
As an aside, I could see little value in playing Ross Barkley for a few minutes at the end of the game. If he is not fit, then do not play him at all. If he is, then why is he behind Stewart Downing, a player who is now 30 and last won an international cap more than two years ago?
I have said before in this column that Downing’s season has been impressive and his recall justified, but not to the extent that he takes a place in the team ahead of a young player who is ready to play senior international football. The game against Scotland was a good opportunity to give a half to Barkley, who has not featured since the World Cup game against Costa Rica.
As for England, by the time they have reached international level, the moment has passed to coach professional footballers to keep the ball. They either have the intuition and the brains to do it, or they do not. There is nothing relaxing about watching England play.
There was a small improvement in the second half but by then I had already seen the same old pattern. My reservation remains the same: what will happen to England when they play the best international teams?
Arsenal move was right for Welbeck
There was a time in my career when an away game at Arsenal was arguably the biggest match of the season. Not in the latter years. The last time Arsenal beat Manchester United was May 2011 and, over the course of the last 10 years, Arsène Wenger’s team have fallen away as title challengers. Now Arsenal are sixth, United are seventh and both are struggling to challenge at the very top of the table.
Much will be made of Danny Welbeck’s first game against the club at which he grew up. The immediate assumption will be that Danny is nurturing some grievance against United at being sold and will want to prove a point. I don’t see it that way. Danny will want to play well because he would want to anyway, regardless of the opposition, and from what I see and hear he is very happy at Arsenal and with his move to London.
Sometimes, a move comes along at just the right time in the career of a footballer. Danny is a quiet lad and I get the impression he is very content at Arsenal. I don’t see there being a lot of resentment at the way he was treated by United. It has worked out quite well for him.
Danny has great physical strength and pace. However, it is not in his nature to knock defenders about. If I had his kind of physique as a player that is exactly what I would have done, but Danny is different. He seems more suited, temperamentally, to the tiki-taka passing game that Arsenal like to play around the edge of their opponents’ area. I think they could use his pace and power more.
In terms of United, they miss the energy that Danny once gave them in attack. My view has not changed: he should not have been sold and recently I have felt that United have looked a bit pedestrian going forward. As a United fan I am a little concerned for them going into Saturday's game.
Aside from Michael Carrick at his very best, United lack a central midfielder capable of linking play and getting the best out of their forwards. They need that individual who can pass the ball forward, play one-twos and bring the strikers into the game. That kind of playmaker – a Cesc Fabregas, Luka Modric or Toni Kroos – is vital to any side. They are the brains of the team and without them the forwards can struggle.
Qatar too hot for the World Cup
I have visited Qatar as a Manchester United player for warm-weather training camps and found it to be a good place for that kind of thing: great facilities and a convenient destination to go during the British winter. For a World Cup finals it is a crazy place to play, especially the original plan to stage it in summer. The simple question that always bothers me is why has England, with its stadiums and infrastructure and love of the game, only had the World Cup once?
The politics of Fifa are for the game’s administrators to sort out. Don’t expect many footballers to wade into the debate this week. When we were in the dressing room at United we left those kind of issues to the manager and the chief executive. As a footballer it is hard enough making sure you are right to win matches – the job you are paid to do – without getting involved in the politics of the game.Reuse content