England: Liverpool's Hollywood Gerrard & Manchester United's Useless Cleverley Show Arsenal's Wilshere Is Roy's Only Hope
There will have been mixed emotions after England’s 1-1 draw with Montenegro in Podgorica on Tuesday night. A small sense of pride may have been found in taking a respectable point from a tricky away fixture, thus keeping the gap at the top at just two points. But there also will have been a sense of regret that England didn’t build on an impressive first half performance, and even relief that the Montenegrin onslaught suffered in the second period only resulted in one goal when it could have been far worse.
England started exceptionally well, with Wayne Rooney in the mood to make up for lost time, having inexplicably got himself sent off the last time the teams met, which resulted in the talismanic striker missing the first two group games of England’s Euro 2012 campaign. Alas, Rooney was channelling his obvious enthusiasm into his football rather than allowing aggression to take over; to glorious effect, too. He hit the post with an audacious chip in only the second minute, before breaking the deadlock with a fine header moments later.
Despite leading the line as the lone striker, Rooney found joy dropping off into pockets of space between the Montenegrin defence and midfield; often linking well with Manchester United teammate Danny Welbeck who put in a good shift from the left. Say what you want about his temperament and off-the-pitch antics, but the fact is that Rooney remains England’s best player, perhaps their only one that would fall into the, admittedly very subjective, ‘world class’ bracket.
Although England started like the proverbial burning semi, Rooney gradually became more and more isolated; bereft of support from his midfield. Michael Carrick was sound in front of a relatively makeshift back four, but his partners in crime Steven Gerrard and Tom Cleverley flattered to deceive. The Liverpool skipper is unerringly consistent for his country, but, despite assisting the goal with a fine corner, was nowhere near his best. Gerrard’s consistent excellence over the past decade allows him some wriggle-room for forgiveness but there’s no doubt his constant desire to play ‘the Hollywood pass’ is infuriating.
The personnel alongside him were perhaps not suited to his desire to demonstrate his vast repertoire of passing. James Milner is agricultural and a fine asset to his team but, despite, in my opinion at least, possessing far more technical attributes than given credit for, is not the man you want on the end of a flashy Gerrard cross-field ball. Not compared to a pacey winger such as Theo Walcott or Aaron Lennon who would be far more direct in their abuse of opposition full-backs.
Cleverley, meanwhile, was far from efficient in possession, and often powder-puff in the challenge. I think he’s a good, tidy player, but as someone I conversed with pointed out, you have to wonder how close he’d get to the England team if he didn’t play for Manchester United. There was undoubtedly a stocky five-foot-seven-inch figure missing from this dysfunctional midfield.
The absence of Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere, and the industry and dynamism he brings to the team, was certainly felt, particularly in the second half as England were overran by the hosts. As an Arsenal fan myself, I’m naturally biased, but few would argue that Wilshere is the jewel in a pretty uninspiring English crown; a future captain as suggested by both Arsène Wenger and Roy Hodgson.
The 21-year-old has already garnered plenty of acclaim from his teammates, including Gerrard who said: “playing against him recently and in training, he’s a one-off. He's a lot better than your normal Premier League midfielder. I have a lot of confidence in him. He's got a bit of everything, he can tackle, get up and down the pitch, create a goal, score a goal, can pass. He can tick almost every box.” High praise indeed, and I dare say none of it is excessive.
Wilshere really is the real deal; “a Spanish player with an English heart” as described by Wenger, he loves to put a foot in as much as he does gracefully gliding past players. England were desperately lacking someone to take the game by the scruff of the neck. Gerrard himself was so often that man but age has taken its toll and now finds himself in a far deeper, more conservative role.
Wilshere is the box-to-box player the defence wants in front of them, and Rooney needs to link with. He has both the physical and mental strength to take any knocks that come his way, which will surely come aplenty in the future. Cleverley and Carrick offer their own strengths to the side, but neither possess Wilshere’s unique ability to unlock defences.
His performance in the win over Brazil was a sign of things to come. It’s important not to put even more pressure on his young shoulders, but he is surely the man England should look to build a team around in the future. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder and that may be true, but his performances on the pitch for club and country suggest there’s very little hyperbole involved. England will probably qualify for Brazil 2014 comfortably, but if they want to make a real fist of winning the trophy for the first time since 1966, there’s no doubt, fitness providing, Wilshere will be at the heart of the team.