Looming uncertainty

Scintillating... Jack Wilshere (right) was in fine form against Slovenia.-PICS:AP Scintillating... Jack Wilshere (right) was in fine form against Slovenia.

England’s campaign to qualify for EURO 2016 in France has been near perfect. But the team still has a lot of deficiencies which might come to the forefront against quality opposition. By Brian Glanville.

England’s recent narrow 3-2 victory in Slovenia meant that they have won every one of their six European qualifying group matches. A modest achievement when you consider the weakness of the opposition. That victory in Slovenia certainly had its encouraging aspects, notably the emergence of the ultra talented Jack Wilshere as a match winner of rare accomplishment. For me, who has long admired him, he has seemed the only English player of the moment capable of passing the ball to effect.

But in Slovenia we saw something else; remarkable left footed finishing power, bringing him two splendidly struck irresistible goals; each of them from outside the penalty box.

This was notable also for the fact that he had moved so far up-field, where the England manager Roy Hodgson likes to station him just in front of the England back four. By contrast with the preference of Wilshere’s Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, who prefers to have Wilshere in a more advanced position, operating just behind the solitary striker.

Wilshere himself seems quite philosophical about Hodgson’s demands, but for my part, those two gloriously struck goals confirm me in my belief that he is ideally suited to operating well up-field. It should be remembered though that these goals were the first he had ever scored for England and that his goals for the Gunners have been something of a rarity.

His problem at Arsenal, and by extension the problem for England, is that there is such intense competition for midfield places at The Emirates, that he cannot even be sure of a regular place. Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta are all midfielders of high quality. Though of all these gifted players, Wilshere is the only one who is truly an Arsenal development. Though he was actually with Luton Town briefly from the age of 10, he came to the Gunners when he was just a year older. One can only hope that he will not fall into the category of being a prophet unrecognised in his own country. While, in parenthesis, we must hope that off the field he ceases to embroil himself in embarrassing situations.

The Football Association have recently fined him for his expletive filled outbursts against the Gunners’ eternal local North London rivals Tottenham, on the occasion of their post FA Cup winning parade. This was the second occasion on which this has happened though he wasn’t punished by Arsenal.

One needs emphasising that without those two unexpected and dramatic goals in Slovenia it is unlikely England would have won at all against a team of modest capacities and achievements. Indeed, Slovenia responded to Wilshere’s goals with a second goal of their own, once again emphasising the fragile nature of England’s error-prone defence.

Past his prime... Even as Wayne Rooney inches closer to becoming England's all-time leading scorer, there are younger strikers, who are ready to lead the English frontline.-

The first Slovenia goal came when the central English defence, so flimsily manned by Chelsea’s Gary Cahill and Manchester United’s Chris Smalling broke down hopelessly. The trouble having started when another United player Phil Jones ineptly took a throw in. The same Jones, who in the recent game against Italy in Turin was actually left standing not by a left winger of renown but by the heavy Juventus defender, Chiellini, who set up the Italian goal. In Slovenia he struggled as he had in Turin and Hodgson’s choice of him like his prolix and unconvincing defence of him after the game was baffling.

Hodgson defended his puzzling decision not to put on the highly promising Southampton right back Nathaniel Clyne till very late in the game as a substitute, preferring, even when pulling off Jones to use Liverpool’s midfielder Jordan Henderson as a right back. Telling us afterward, again bizarrely, that just because a player, meaning Clyne, who sped off the field in high dudgeon at the finish, was in good form for his club didn’t mean he should play for the international team.

The second Slovenian goal was another embarrassment. Henderson failed to cut out a long cross from the left; and England’s left back in turn allowed himself to be out-jumped in the air. The lack of a capable centre back in English football — bar those from abroad — is forever puzzling, though at last help seems to be at hand in the resilient shape of Everton’s young John Stones, who had such a fine season for his club, showing pace, intelligence and a welcome desire, as he himself says, to come out with the ball, his role model being Rio Ferdinand.

It was a blow to the England under-21 team, contesting the European finals in the Czech Republic, that Stones should collide with the team’s goalkeeper in training and thus miss out. But there seems little doubt that come the new season, he will bring much needed solidarity and drive to the faltering England defence.

But what of Wayne Rooney, who in Silesia did score the winning goal, having missed two very clear chances? Soon he will have passed the record of Bobby Charlton as the highest of all England goal-scorers but the statistics, as so often happens, hardly tell the whole truth. In fact, bar his scintillating performances in Portugal in the 2004 European Championship Finals, when the Portuguese ultimately kicked him out of the game in Lisbon, he’s notoriously failed to deliver in major competitions. He did get a goal in England’s disastrous showing in the 2014 World Cup when, to be fair, Hodgson inexplicably stuck him out on the left in the opener versus Italy, but that was about it. He failed in South Africa four years earlier and got himself sent off for a petulant foul playing Portugal in Germany four years before that.

Rooney seems sacrosanct, but the time may well have come when he gives way to the likes of Spurs’ prolific young Harry Kane or even to Theo Walcott. Hodgson himself? I still think he should have been made England manager long ago, after the 1994 World Cup to which he so resourcefully took Switzerland. Now? I’m not quite sure.