I came in just at the end of the first half: Jenas had given England a lead. Jenas? And, later in the second half, Gareth Barry came off. Barry?
Match of the Day was refusing to tell johnny-come-latelies like myself who was playing, so it took some time to dawn on me that Capello had double-crossed us about his selection yet again. Or, we’d just failed to second-guess him. No Hargreaves, no Young, and Joe Cole appearing both on the wing and in “the hole”.
As for Barry, he had been playing and I’d been watching for a full half hour without my noticing that he was even on the pitch. But that’s good news: that’s how it’s supposed to be.
Under McClaren, the men who came out well from internationals always did so to a dismal backdrop of off-days and poor form and dulled inspiration from their colleagues. Crouch at first, later Gareth Barry or the “veterans at 28” Owen and Heskey. This time, the players in the spotlight were exactly who you would want them to be: the front men, Rooney, Bentley and Joe Cole. Later, Shaun Wright-Phillips.
They could take the applause because things were working remarkably well behind them. The Swiss goal was a half-chance brilliantly taken; that, and some last-minute nerves from England as the clock ran down, was all they were permitted to have. England’s defence won possession, and – instead of blasting the ball upfield – fed it to Gerrard, or Jenas, who’d take the ball upfield with a series of short passes interspersed with intelligent but simple movement, then hand over to Bentley or Cole. Then the fun would really begin.
England made plenty of chances in the second half. What was so refreshing about these chances is that they weren’t random occurrences, but regular occasions emerging from possession football and the sheer skill and intelligence of the front three. The ball skills, the thinking, the cooperation and the attitude were all there in spades and at times it was lovely to watch. The Swiss responded with violence, upending Bentley time after time when he threatened to rip them into pieces.
It wasn’t champagne football, merely very promising. England still stood off the opposition too much, especially later on, when they should have closed down. And SWP, although good within his lights, clearly doesn’t have Bentley’s passing range or vision.
But for the first time in a long while, there was no doubt whatsoever that England knew what they were doing. The best moments under McClaren came as a result of accident: enforced selections of Barry, of Heskey. This, by contrast, looked planned and practiced, and one reflects that it was planned and practiced in only 2-3 days. Both goals, Jenas’s tap-in and then SWP’s, topped off patient, excellent play.
What highlights and online clips will conceal is England’s new reluctance to resort to the long ball. Crouch came on and was employed as a striker whose ability demanded, and got, the pass along the floor. But for excellent keeping, Crouch and Bentley would have reprised the Croatia goal.
But if you missed the game, and rely on clips and best-ofs, watch the play, but then look at the expressions on the faces of the players. That scared gormlessness, that muted little-boy-lost look, is gone. They look awake, secure, resolute even.
Towards the end, England decided to pass the ball around for its own sake, Leeds-Southampton style. Each successful pass – I didn’t count how many – was greeted with huge cheers from a large, contented Wembley crowd.
It’s easy to run away with expectations when England put in one good performance. But this was not just a good performance. It was a clever one. Not a fluke, not the consequence of an Owen or a Rooney on a blue streak. Our international side has adopted Dan Dennett’s “intentional stance.”. My summary: England kept possession well. And that means game on.
This is going to be good.