Under the camouflage of Beckham’s defenestration, Steve McClaren continues with a policy of continuity from the Erickson days. Despite his brace against Andorra, Defoe looks to lose out and we are going to see the Rooney/Crouch frontline so many wanted to play against Portugal. Rooney is supposedly off-form at present, which in effect means only that he isn’t wowing the eye on every outing. Crouch is no longer a sure starter for Liverpool, but nevertheless seems to be continuing to improve his all-round game.
There are worries now – not expressed in July – that Crouch and Rooney won’t play well together – that both are happier playing in a slightly dropped-off position feeding a predatory front man. Injuries to Owen, Johnson and Ashton, plus Defoe’s failure to find regular football, rule out any such raptor in front of Rooney or Crouch, so they’re just going to have to cope. I expect to see Crouch reprising his excellent performance against Portugal in holding up the ball to bring others into play – and then we’ll discover how well Rooney cooperates with that. I can’t think he’ll have much trouble, even without his form.
I have no worries whatsoever about central midfield. It’s only been a few months since England fans stopped booing Hargreaves, so there’s something a little hypocritical about the moans and groans about his absence now. Scott Parker is a worthy replacement and won’t let anyone down. Likewise, the absence of Lennon does little save give the improved Wright-Phillips a chance, and on the other side of the field both Downing and Richardson are quick, even if the latter’s distribution is still a trifle on the crude side.
The defence is unchanged and still the best in Europe.
The game will be a nailbiter – one senses that Macedonia are going to do their best to rise to the occasion – but a 1-0 victory will be enough to put England in confident mood for the game away in Croatia, which, on paper at least, is the far greater challenge.
Now I’ve said all that… talk about passion and commitment can be seen for what they are: empty words that don’t address the real problems presented by a football match. McClaren’s done two good things: move Gerrard onto the right, which I think we can all agree has been a great success, and pick Dean Ashton, who looks, when fit, rather more than the average second-string England striker. One of those two things has been given the chance to be effective; it has, and congratulations are due. But it’s a tactical change. Otherwise, performances are unchanged from Erickson days. It wasn’t passion or commitment that were ever lacking, but other, more subtle things, harder things to put right. And above all, luck: England are not a lucky team, under McClaren no more than under Erickson.