Far from best

While all the attacking talents available make the job of English manager Roy Hodgson easier, the defensive frailties of the side will worry him. By Brian Glanville.

Not till next March will Roy Hodgson’s England team go to Montenegro to resume their far from easy quest to reach the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil. They were lucky to avoid defeat both at home to a superior Ukraine team and in Warsaw against Poland, who lacked their most dangerous attacker (Jakub Blaszczykowski). In the meantime, Hodgson tells us he is thinking of enlisting a psychologist to help his players convert penalty kicks; something they notably and expensively failed to do when beaten on spot kicks by Italy in the recent European tournament. And indeed Steven Gerrard, winner of no fewer than a hundred England caps, has admitted that he finds the pressure hugely more intense when taking such a spot kick for England than he does when playing for Liverpool.

Yet how much good would a psychologist do? A few years ago, a list of questions posed by the official psychologist at Arsenal was leaked. They were of ludicrous banality and irrelevance; so much so that they were widely ridiculed, not least by Ray Parlour, then the team’s England international outside right. Will the psychologist eventually chosen by Hodgson perhaps resort to hypnotism? But all this alas begs the question of whether an England team will even on demanding occasions even get as far as a penalty shoot-out. Truth to tell they were very lucky to do so when they lost to Italy in the EUROs.

It would perhaps be unfair to draw many conclusions from the display of the England team which recently lost 4-2 to Sweden in Stockholm, a match which will long be remembered for the amazing volleyed bicycle 30-yard strike by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, one of the four goals he so majestically scored that evening.

Which leads one to wonder, whether he would have achieved so much had John Terry only been there which he never will again. Whatever Terry’s many vicissitudes off the pitch, and as we starkly saw in Barcelona last year, sometimes on it, there is no doubt that his presence in England’s defence was essential and even irreplaceable. His pace now may not be what it was, but his awareness, his positioning, his force in the air and on the ground, are still outstanding. Above all, he has been a major influence on the defenders around him. Either with club, Chelsea, or country there is no doubt that Ashley Cole at left back isn’t the same player without Terry beside him to give advice and support. That Terry should decide unilaterally to withdraw from international football after his fierce criticism and relatively light suspension by the Football Association was perhaps no surprise.

Yet the whole shabby affair of his outburst of racism involving Queens Park Rangers’ Anton Ferdinand still leaves major questions unanswered. I still maintain that the FA should have insisted on dealing with the case first; in which case there would be no ambiguity, no controversy, about their decision. The Metropolitan Police, who took it to the Westminster Magistrates court, offered them the chance to do so. But that court as we know came up with the equivalent of the old Scottish verdict of “not proven.” A criminal court, being limited in its scope of decision; where as an FA tribunal can act on the basis of the balance of probabilities. A situation complicated by the fact that when it came to the Terry case, the FA had only just abandoned their own ruling that they had to accept any decision arrived at in a criminal court. A further irony, being, that even had Terry been found guilty in the magistrate’s court, the fine would have been a negligible GBP2,500.

In Stockholm, without Terry, an unquestioned recidivist it is true. Hodgson surely gambled somewhat recklessly when late in the game he threw on for his first ever international appearance the Stoke City centre back Ryan Shawcross. Not for me in any case a player of international quality. Some of his bull at a gate tackling can look reckless and one such challenge inflicted shocking injury on Arsenal’s Welsh international midfielder Aaron Ramsey, who was out of action for many months to follow.

Sending on the untried Shawcross when Ibrahimovic was around and in such deadly form seemed an inapplicable risk and indeed so it proved. Ibrahimovic’s third goal might well have been prevented by better marking but to give Shawcross his due; he had scarcely come on the field. As to the Swede’s magnificent fourth, it was propitiated by a foolish mistake by the England goalkeeper Joe Hart, who came racing out of his penalty area attempting to clear the ball with an inept header. On which as we know Ibrahimovic so sensationally pounced.

Hart, though he has had his triumphant games, not least for Manchester City in the Champions League, has become increasingly erratic and there seems a strong case for giving an opportunity to Celtic’s impressive Newcastle keeper Fraser Forster, hero of two outstanding displays for Celtic against Barcelona in the Champions League.

At least it was encouraging to see Arsenal’s clever, young playmaker Jack Wilshere at last back on the field after long absence; sadly enough the one English player capable in the Italian saying of inventing the game. And it was bold and profitable of Hodgson to launch the 17-year-old Liverpool prodigy Raheem Sterling. Though why call up the dynamic Crystal Palace winger, Ivory Coast-born, Wilfred Zaha and then keep him on the bench till so near the end. Having cautioned him against choosing his country of birth over England; a choice Zaha hasn’t yet renounced.

Still, there is Wayne Rooney to come back and one hopes he won’t get himself sent off in Montenegro as he did on his last appearance there. And the lively form up front of Manchester United’s Danny Welbeck who seems possessed of the “big match temperament” seems a guarantee of goals. Even if he isn’t an automatic starter for United.