International friendlies are often regarded as dull and meaningless interruptions to the domestic season. However, England wouldn’t have learned these five things, without last night’s thrilling friendly at Wembley.
1. 4-3-3 is the future
Fabio Capello employed a 4-3-3 formation for a second game following the success it brought in Cardiff on Saturday. The Italian has come under even more criticism recently due to his handling of the England captaincy (again) and language issues but he seems to be keeping the media at bay when it comes to his tactics by finally ditching his preferred 4-4-2 for the more attacking and fluid 4-3-3, even if he’s nine months late.
England’s latest captain, Gareth Barry, produced a solid performance as the holding midfielder in front of a shaky back four, although not as good as Scott Parker who was solid against Wales. Teen sensation Jack Wilshere was once again very impressive, slightly tired but still passing and moving effortlessly in a formation he thrives off.
Stewart Downing and Ashley Young were the prominent figures for England and remarkably the Villa men were involved in almost every single attacking move, both unfortunate not to have a goal to their names.
I’m hoping that 4-3-3 will continue to be Capello’s choice of formation, bringing the best out of an England side with plenty of potential and utilising the exciting talent of Jack Wilshere.
2. “England B”
A new-look England side, dubbed as “England B”, stole the show at Wembley as Capello released a string of key players after the Wales game due to Champions League commitments. The list included Captain John Terry, Wayne Rooney and Ashley Cole which paved the way for new-comers Gary Cahill, Leighton Baines and Andy Carroll, who had a combined total of 8 caps, to make the starting eleven.
Before kick-off the news that England would be fielding a second string side didn’t go down well with the 20,000 Ghana fans that had travelled to London to see their team line up against England’s finest. They didn’t seem too bothered after Asamoah Gyan had levelled in stoppage time and in all fairness, neither did many England fans who had definitely got their money’s worth.
The only potential negative to come out of the game was that “England B” revealed some worrying defensive frailties, especially at right-back. Phil Jagielka looked shaky after moving there at half-time due to Glen Johnson being substituted, which reinforced the lack of competition in that position. Joleon Lescott and Leighton Baines also failed to impress in defence and the stoppage time goal from Ghana could have been one of many on another night, if it wasn’t for the ever-reliable Joe Hart.
However, the “England B” side will have given Capello something to think about when it comes to his next selection and it was refreshing to see some new faces in a usually very predictive England squad. After all, competition for places can’t be a bad thing.
3. Villa’s got talent
Aston Villa’s Stewart Downing and Ashley Young were the stand-out performers last night, controlling the England flanks, which leaves you scratching your head as to how Gerard Houllier’s side have found themselves in a relegation battle with players like this at their disposal. Darren Bent, who scored against Wales on Saturday, was an unused sub.
Although usually only fringe players for England, Downing and Young found themselves as the major creative outlets throughout the first half and really benefited from Capello’s recently employed 4-3-3 system.
The pair linked up well on 10 minutes as Young struck a curling shot from Downing's knockdown forcing a good save from Blackpool ‘keeper Richard Kingson. Both players each had good chances to put England ahead, with Ashley Young hitting the bar from close range after James Milner’s cross evaded everyone inside the box and man of the match Stewart Downing burst through Ghana’s backline but blasted over with his weaker foot. England’s only goal was a product of the Downing-Young combination as some clever play set up Andy Carroll for his first international goal.
Downing and Young will now be hoping to force their way into the starting eleven for June’s fixtures, but before then the pair must produce these sort-of performances during their remaining 8 games, and Villa will have no problem beating the drop.
4. First of many?
Andy Carroll is without doubt one of the most exciting prospects in English football, and after grabbing his first international goal in just his second appearance, he is now on his way to fulfilling that potential.
Fabio Capello’s decision to include the young striker may have been questioned throughout the opening 40 minutes, as an unfit Carroll struggled to keep up with the pace and was largely disappointing. However, Capello’s faith was rewarded with a goal when some good link-up play between Young and Downing set up Carroll perfectly. The twenty-two year old has started to show all the signs of a natural goalscorer he displayed before this recent thigh injury and he took this chance without any hesitation, drilling the ball into the far corner of the net. His first goal since December.
The Liverpool striker is yet to score for his new club and is still a very long way from justifying his £35 million price tag but with his fitness returning and off the field problems being dealt with; things can only get better for Andy Carroll.
I’m convinced this goal will be the first of many, for club and more importantly country.
5. Friendlies ARE meaningful
“Thrilling” and “Friendly” aren’t two words you would normally see in the same sentence, especially when England are involved, but last night’s 1-1 draw with Ghana is exactly how I would describe it.
Whole-hearted challenges from two sides displaying passion and determination to win a “worthless game” and an electric atmosphere created by 80,000 fans packed into Wembley made for an excellent friendly match between the brightest young team in Africa and the promising next generation of English players.
New players, new formations and a newfound belief for England fans who witnessed a bright glimpse into the future...what other type of game can offer this?
It’s true that they can be a pain when it comes to injuries and fitness, but last night proves just how competitive and entertaining these games can actually be. So despite what Sir Alex Ferguson and the majority of Premier League managers say, international friendlies are definitely meaningful.
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