England just about scraped through then. All the worry, tension and frustration that mounted in the press throughout the past few weeks will by invariably supplanted by jingoistic fervour as the country meets their old German rivals once again. The management and the players however, should be wary of forgetting these disquieting group stages so quickly.
Against Slovenia then, Fabio Capello kept faith in the 4-4-2 albeit with some necessary enhancements from its previous iteration against Algeria.
The first, and most important of those enhancements, was replacing Aaron Lennon – who has so far had a disappointingly inept tournament – with James Milner. In comparison to Lennon, Milner retained his width, providing an out-ball for pretty much the entire game. His discipline also enabled Glen Johnson to roam forward in support. Serbian midfielder Andraz Kirm had little interest in tracking the England right-back with any degree of intent which meant that Johnson’s marauding gave time and space for Milner to deliver his crosses.
On the opposite wing Steven Gerrard reciprocated Milner’s wide position in what may be his most impressive performance out on the left so far for his country. The Liverpool maestro went left and stayed left. On previous occasions he has had a tendency to drift around into the middle as though Frank Lampard had some kind of gravitational pull.
By offering such width on the left and right flank, Slovenia’s defence stretched itself to cope, which, in turn, allowed space for Wayne Rooney to occupy just left of centre and gave Frank Lampard the space he desires in front of the box (even if he didn’t make full use of it). Reflecting the opposing wing, Ashley Cole was also given license to bomb forward when he was comfortable that Valter Birsa wouldn’t get the ball and break – something that should’ve been exploited better against Slovenia.
It was by breaking that Slovenia created their best chances. Unfortunately, the blame for this has to be aimed at Gareth Barry. Often known for making sensible, routine passes, the Manchester City midfielder lost concentration and gave the ball away on a few too many occasions in advanced positions that allowed the Slovenian side to break. Had it not been for some superb last-ditch defending England could already be packing their bags. Those sorts of mistakes will not go unpunished by the likes of Ozil, Podolski and Muller on Sunday.
Gareth Barry’s errors aside, England retained the ball much better than they had done previously in their campaign. After 20 minutes the possession count was 61% in England’s favour and this was indicative of the rest of the match. England did not only keep the ball well but they also managed to enforce a high tempo of passing and movement throughout the match that Slovenia had trouble coping with. More of the same, on that front please.
Another interesting, but subtle change from previous games was the dynamism of the four midfield players. When attacking, Lampard appeared to front a wide midfield diamond, with Gareth Barry holding the rear. When defending, this diamond flattened back into a standard flat four with Lampard taking his place alongside Barry. Whether this was intentional on the manager’s behalf or whether it was natural and instinctive movement from Lampard isn’t too clear but, either way, Lampard appeared to be happier in his slightly more advanced role.
England’s defensive frailties and carelessness in possession will have been noticed by the Germans but their uneasy exploits against Ghana shouldn’t strike fear into the Anglo-Italian Squad-father. The German’s can probably count themselves lucky to have won their game against the only African’s currently in the knockout stages. Nevertheless, England themselves still have many things to work on and no one in their right mind should get carried away with a 1-0 win against Slovenia.