England still in disarray

Tom Cleverley failed to impress against Ukraine.-AP

You can’t, as we know, make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and against Ukraine, England lacked a whole platoon of players. The previous 5-0 victory in Moldova was made to look as irrelevant as it seemed at the time. By Brian Glanville.

Having avoided defeat by the Ukraine by the skin of their teeth at Wembley, England’s prospects of qualifying for Brazil and the 2014 World Cup look worryingly uncertain. Having watched that match, and found myself staring across at the totally deserted vast upper tier of the opposite stand — by and large the fans had voted with their feet and even the offer of cheap tickets had helped very little — I cannot feel optimistic.

England must still go to Kiev and on this kind of mediocre form, the subsequent trip to play a Polish side which of late has hardly been flourishing, could present difficulties. Not that the away fixture will prove anything of a novelty. Over the years and the various tournaments, England have been playing the Poles time and again it seems. Never forgotten is that dire night at Wembley in 1973, when the Poles held England to a draw and thus knocked them out of the competition, where Poland flourished in West Germany.

My old friend Roy Hodgson deserved sympathy. You can’t, as we know, make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and against Ukraine, he lacked a whole platoon of players. The previous 5-0 victory in Moldova was made to look as irrelevant as it seemed at the time. The hope that Manchester United’s young central midfielder, Tom Cleverley, would prove a major force in midfield simply evaporated. He missed several good chances in front of the Ukrainian goal and never produced the kind of inspired pass which, alas, of all English players, only the still younger Jack Wilshere can provide. And he, as we know, seems to be constantly injured and may or may not be back in October.

Steven Gerrard had his midfield moments, but it was notable that after Lescott, struggling at centre back, had given the ball away, Gerrard allowed Konoplyanka simply to stride across him before beating Hart with that glorious right-footed shot. Overall, especially in the first half, the Ukrainians, with no evident need of the talismanic Andrei Shevchenko, who once played so superbly at Wembley for Dynamo Kiev, played far the more inventive, intelligent and technically assured football.

Not till the young Manchester United striker Danny Welbeck belatedly came on did England seem likely to save the game. And when he did, Hodgson initially had him marooned out on the left wing. Only when Welbeck showed the initiative to move into the middle did England regain a cutting edge. Welbeck proceeded to hit the post, then to gain the penalty from which Frank Lampard so breathlessly equalised.

Hodgson’s fear must now be however that, as in the case of all too many of his England squad, Welbeck may well find himself at Manchester United on the bench rather than on the field. United have a profusion of leading attackers, especially as they have now bought Robin Van Persie from Arsenal. And then there is Rooney.

Yes, may be Rooney, cordially praised by Hodgson after the Ukraine game and evidently in line to be welcomed back, but will he be worth it? Last summer in the EUROs Rooney played twice and looked mediocre in both games. True he scored the crucial goal against Ukraine, but that was a point blank header he could hardly miss, while in the first half, he had wasted an excellent chance, such as in former happier days he’d have happily put away without trouble.

He played only those two games as we know, because he was serving out a suspension, imposed for a petulant and all too typical foul while playing against Montenegro. Previously, in the 2006 World Cup, he had been expelled in the match against Portugal while in South Africa in 2010 his contribution had been negligible. It was surely significant that in the United home match against Fulham when he was badly injured he had started the game on the substitutes bench. Hodgson clearly has faith, but the operative word might rather be hope.

The return of John Terry and Ashley Cole, both missing against Ukraine, would surely and materially improve the defence. Lescott and Jagielka who once played inside one another at Everton were an unimpressive pair against Ukraine. Whatever Terry’s vicissitudes — and it does seem absurd of the FA to charge him with racial abuse of Anton Ferdinand when the magistrates court have absolved him — he dominates central defence and is a huge influence on his colleagues. Cole, his Chelsea team-mate, who defended him in court and is of course black himself, is a far more versatile and incisive player than Leighton Baines, who stood in for him against Ukraine.

Arsenal's Jack Wilshere is the only ray of hope for England in the near future.-AP

The return from injury of Scott Parker in central midfield would give the defenders behind him an essential ally, capable of winning the ball, which Cleverley does not and Michael Carrick, proposed as an alternative, has not been recently impressive, even in Moldova. Then there is of course Gareth Barry, who is another capable of giving some solidity to an England midfield which found it hard to contain the Ukrainians.

But if Welbeck plays what of Jermain Defoe, who may or may not have scored a valid goal in the first half, when he was deployed as sole striker? When he and Welbeck were both on the field, the English attack looked effective. The general tendency to deploy one man bands upfront seems to me a doubtful and overcautious one, though goodness knows that England’s initial 4-5-1 formation scarcely looked watertight.

The teenaged Oxlade Chamberlain ran into too many blind alleys against Ukraine though his talent and promise are beyond doubt. It’s still hard to know why Hodgson ignored that natural winger, Aaron Lennon of Spurs.