This was a vintage England friendly performance, which is definitely not a good thing. Roy Hodgson’s tactical naivete gifted the nation a turgid opening 45 minutes, and a second-half that only sparked to life in its final third. Andros Townsend’s late stunner cancelled out Graziano Pelle’s header for Italy and will ensure that the game goes down in the statistics as a draw in a tough away game; in reality, it was an uninspiring event with too many insipid performances and too few positives to make the game worthwhile.
Harry Kane made the starting line-up to leave a nation drooling at just what the in-form striker could do with 90 whole minutes (not much, as it turns out). Just so people would not get carried away with a reckless euphoria, Hodgson then countered this by slotting in Chris Smalling alongside Phil Jagielka in a centre-back partnership that would strike fear into English hearts. Also Phil Jones lined up in central midfield for no discernible reason. Henderson and Delph continued their process of ‘getting to know one another’ in central midfield, with captain Rooney prowling around behind the front two of Kane and Theo Walcott, who is apparently still a thing.
But in a game crying out for pace down the wings to counter Italy’s stifling of the middle of the park, there was none until Townsend’s late cameo. Walcott ended up deployed in the hole behind the front two and – it’s worth reiterating – Phil Jones started in midfield. Started. In midfield. Bizarre selection choices and an absence of cohesive tactical strategy, admittedly hamstrung by the absence of Danny Welbeck and Raheem Sterling, made for grim watching against an Italy team that was there for the taking.
Clive Tyldesley on ITV smugly suggested that the television viewer would not recognise many of the names in the Italian team; a not unreasonable testament to the absence of global superstars, but clearly Clive underestimates just how often people play FIFA. Alessandro Florenzi? Course I’ve heard of him mate, 78 sprint speed. But in all seriousness, the Italian defence included Leandro Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Internazionale captain Andrea Ranocchia. Matteo Darmian would be one to watch, as Bayern Munich allegedly have been. Southampton’s Graziano Pelle, woefully out of form for his club, was given a striking role.
After a very bitty opening, Marco Parolo tested Joe Hart for the first time. The England glovesman palmed over the stinging, albeit central, long-range effort with consummate ease. Eder’s free-kick attempt from a similar range almost went out for a throw-in, as if to mock everyone who had settled down on their Tuesday night to watch what was essentially a glorified training session. Darmian outpaced notable speedster Clyne to tear at the England defence, his cross from the byline agriculturally despatched over his own crossbar by Jagielka. England were missing the directness of Welbeck and Sterling; Walcott has comparable pace, but his runs were conducted on the last shoulder waiting for balls that never came. Delph’s deep cross from the left was nodded into the danger area by a towering Harry Kane, the ball being partially cleared to a loitering Rooney. The captain’s effort was not struck sweetly, but deflected up against the crossbar.
Around the half-hour mark Italy broke the deadlock. A corner eventually broke to Chiellini on the left flank, his wrong-foot dink nodded across Hart by a delighted Pelle. Jones will not be happy that Chiellini brushed off his attempted challenge so casually, when supposedly the defending aspect is Jones’ strong point. Pelle’s header was coolly finished, and England were embroiled in a battle far removed from the sedate stroll of European Qualifying. The disparity between the sides was obvious; Italy were decisive and inventive on the ball compared to England’s ponderous and cumbersome nature. To alleviate this cumbersomeness, Smalling left the field with illness to be replaced by Michael Carrick. Carrick operated as the deepest midfielder, meaning that – praise the Lord – Phil Jones could drop back in central defence where he could perform slightly more assuredly. Yet England were still unable to impose themselves on a game where Italy’s 3-5-2 formation was cancelling out both the threat of Kane and the passing of the midfield.
Half-time arrived with Italy one goal to the good. Hodgson weighed up all his options at half-time before deciding that Kyle Walker was the man for the hour. Despite this dazzling substitution, little changed in the way of the game. An impressive Jagielka stretched to make a last-ditch interception from a pass by Soriano that was as coruscating as this word I just looked up in the dictionary. Moments later, Darmian breezed past Walker and released Eder, who was denied by Joe Hart from close range. A useless attempt at clearing the ball by Jagielka then allowed Pelle to skew wide when the goal was begging. England were struggling to gain a foothold in the game.
Michael Carrick is often under-appreciated, but his passing and positioning brought a sense of order that starkly contrasted to the shapeless midfield of the first half.
Barkley’s introduction brought direct running with it that breathed life into England’s attacking verve. Gibbs’ long ball forward fell for Rooney after a misjudgement from Chiellini. Rooney trapped it delightfully, but Buffon comfortably palmed his shot away. ‘He’s hit it too well there!’ Andy Townsend cried on ITV. Others would suggest that if he’d hit it better, he might have bloody scored. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Soon after Kane’s tempting cross ensnared the darting run of Rooney, but Ranocchia just managed to guide it away from the danger area.
Ryan Mason entered the fray for his international debut in place of Henderson, confirming that his star has ascended just as swiftly as clubmate Kane’s. Andros Townsend had also arrived on the pitch a few minutes prior, and these two combined to produce the equaliser. Mason’s endeavour enabled him to poke the ball into Townsend’s path. The Tottenham winger earned an extra yard of space before unleashing an emphatic shot on his weaker right foot from the edge of the box. Buffon could do nothing, for it was a splendid finish.
England looked their most bubbly for the final 15 minutes, but ultimately had to settle for a draw that presumably turns a dire and dreary performance into an archetypal good-performance-away-from-home. What did we learn from this? We have learnt that Hodgson is happy to select players who are out of form their clubs in positions in which they are uncomfortable at the best of times; see Jones and Walcott. We have learnt that England’s depth is troubling, for without Welbeck and Sterling there was no creative spark and without a full-strength defence there was Walker and Smalling. We have learnt that Andros Townsend will now be selected in every England squad ever by Hodgson despite his ineptitude for his club. Wait, didn’t we know all this already? In which case it was a total waste of time.
Nothing quite gets the pulse racing like some player ratings for an international friendly:
Joe Hart, 6 – made a couple of smart saves.
Nathaniel Clyne, 5 – got forward, but often the moves broke down when he arrived.
Kieran Gibbs, 5 – like Clyne, impotent in the final third and questionable in the other two.
Phil Jagielka, 7 – made a series of impressive recovery tackles, although the less generous will question why he was always recovering.
Chris Smalling, 5 – poor distribution and positional awareness.
Phil Jones, 5 – not his fault that Hodgson played him out of position, but allowing Chiellini to glide past him for the first goal was his fault. Improved in central defence, but it wasn’t hard.
Fabian Delph, 5 – what would have been a generic 6/10 performance was ruined by his passing radar going absolutely bonkers in the second half.
Jordan Henderson, 5 – anonymous for England once again. Offered nothing going forward or backward, only sideward.
Wayne Rooney, 6 – usually at the centre of England’s attacks, but disappointed not to have scored.
Theo Walcott, 4 – when you don’t play to Walcott’s strengths, he will get 4/10.
Harry Kane, 6 – good endeavour, but his decision-making will improve with more experience.
Michael Carrick, 7 – surely an indisputable pick as England’s base of the diamond.
Kyle Walker, 5 – why.
Ross Barkley, 6 – strong running, poor passing.
Andros Townsend, 7 – fantastic goal, and displayed some examples of his searing pace too.
Ryan Mason, 6 – did okay, assisted goal.
Ryan Bertrand, ? – only on for a few minutes.
The Yorker’s Player of the Match: if it has to be awarded to an England player then make it Michael Carrick. Often underappreciated, but his passing and positioning brought a sense of order that starkly contrasted to the shapeless midfield of the first half. Otherwise it would be Andrea Ranocchia, a rock in the Italian defence.
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