Diamonds don't come rougher than this

England's midfield failed to sparkle in the absence of Gerrard and Scholes

Guy Hodgson
Wednesday 18 September 2013 02:25
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Welcome to the bizarre. As soon as England took the field at the Gradski Stadium in Skopje they had every reason to feel they were entering the realm of the unfamiliar. They had never played in Macedonia before and it is possible no England team in living memory has performed the pre-match rituals to the accompaniment of a pianist parked on the touchline. Add a female singer with a striking resemblance to Adam Ant and a voice so flat on the National Anthem it could have been used at The Oval and the feelings invoked of disorientation were winning admiration from interrogation specialists.

And it worked. Kieron Dyer may have described Sven Goran Eriksson's preferred midfield as the "Famous Four" but, stripped of Paul Scholes and Steven Gerrard, it was more the cumbersome quartet. To put it delicately, the diamond did not sparkle.

In theory Frank Lampard, Owen Hargreaves and David Beckham were to be freed to advance on the Madedonians by Nicky Butt's patrolling in front of his back four, but the Manchester United man spent much of the first half covering gaps created by his colleagues' inability to pass to each other. The home team merely had to camp patiently in their half waiting for the mistake to launch a counter-attack.

They did not usually have to wait long. In the 13th minute Lampard made a bid to live up to his pre-match intention of becoming a "pivotal figure" by giving a pass that would have shamed a Sunday park player struggling with a hangover. Artim Sakiri and Georgi Hristov swept past the stranded Sol Campbell with a quick one-two, and had the linesman not been as inaccurate as Lampard, the former would have been bearing down on David James.

To be fair to Lampard, it was not entirely his fault because the choices he had were not exactly abundant. Beckham and Hargreaves were supposed to provide the width but were drawn inside in search of the ball so the man in possession could hardly ever look to his wings. The Macedonians were given less territory to cover and, when they did break, their own flank men were usually faced by only the England full-backs.

That is, if there was a full-back in the way. Such was the lack of width that Gary Neville and Ashley Cole were sucked forward, so when the inevitable error happened England were often horribly exposed. Not that the introduction of even Stan Matthews and Tom Finney to the flanks could have prevented the Macedonian goal, which is likely to prove favourite viewing for England disparagers everywhere such was the collection of errors.

Cole gave the ball away, and as the rest of the England defence went forward to try to catch the home players offside, Gary Neville - probably still wheezing from haring up and down the right - was left five yards behind him with his hand in the air like a child wishing to be excused.

Campbell probably wished he could have left the pitch soon afterwards because when the cross came in the Arsenal defender attempted to avert the danger by lying on the ball. A study of any coaching manual would reveal the folly of this tactic and when John Terry blocked one shot, goalkeeper James completed the catalogue of cock-ups by inadvertently scooping a shot that might have been going wide inside his near post.

The scorer was Hristov whose previous impact on the nation had been to describe Barnsley's female population as "ugly". Not as much as England's defending, he might now add. Defenders of the English midfield could point out that the goal had little to do with them but if Cole had not been forced to look ever infield for a colleague, Macedonia might not have cut out his pass so easily.

Something had to change and Eriksson rescued a poor performance by taking off Lampard, consigning the diamond formation to the Gerald Ratner estimation of low quality jewellery. It is usually a fair barometer to how England are playing when Emile Heskey is considered the answer to a problem, but on this occasion the Liverpool striker's muscular presence on the left of a 4-3-3 proved to be just that.

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