England – calm down!

It’s been interesting to read/hear the media response to last night’s England-France friendly. On the surface, I think we’re all broadly in agreement… England were lacklustre, France were worthy winners, England still lack technical precision, France have returned from their World Cup embarrassment much better than England, and so on. But some of the reaction is quite hysterical.

I think it’s important to get things in perspective. It was a friendly match, during which both coaches substituted SIX players. Eight of the England players have less than ten caps, and three were debutantes, two of whom were in the starting line-up. If the culture of entitlement (seen as the core reason for poor performances by stalwarts such as Rooney, Lampard and Terry) is to end, what better than to “blood” young players in challenging friendlies against big teams?

Both Carroll and Henderson looked overwhelmed at times. Of course they did… it was their first cap, against a very talented French side. Despite a couple of shocking performances in international tournaments recently, France didn’t suddenly stop producing talented players between 2000 and 2010. People seem to forget that they reached the World Cup final in 2006, despite the otherwise disastrous man-management skills of Raymond Domenech. With a proper coach now in charge, maybe we’re seeing them starting to regain the interrupted momentum of 1998-2000, with a new generation of scarily talented players… Gourcuff, Benzema, Nasri, Malouda, Valbuena…

In one of the TV interviews, Capello pointed out that he’d been urged to try out younger players, saying something like “and this is what happens”. I’m slightly concerned, both by the suggestion that he was bending to media pressure and by the fatalistic tone, but we shouldn’t read too much into the nuances of someone haltingly speaking their second or third language. If anything, I’d like to see him fast-track even more young players into the spotlight. The successful under-21 squad is there for a reason, after all.

On that subject, some older players are still not reaching their true potential in an England shirt. Gerrard, for all his genuine commitment, is still under the misapprehension that his 70-yard “searching” passes are the answer. His battling hat-trick against Napoli is what he does best; he just doesn’t shine as a Carrick/Hargreaves wannabe, spraying inch-perfect passes from the centre of midfield. Gareth Barry is rapidly slipping into the same lazy habit, and looked terribly shaky. More worryingly, Ben Foster looks less and less like an international goalkeeper every time he plays. All of this is the reason why the England coaching team MUST maintain a good relationship with the Championship clubs… it just isn’t enough to make routine selections from the Premiership.

But ultimately, what really happened? A friendly match did exactly what it’s designed to do… the coach was able to try out new combinations of players in a risk-free environment. Some didn’t work, some were hampered by nerves and inexperience. I hope Capello sees past the first-night nerves and recalls last night’s youngsters, also continuing to experiment with Kevin Davies and Adam Johnson, while introducing even more young hopefuls. There are still places for Rooney, Lampard and Terry, but they must be earned, otherwise English football really will stagnate in mediocrity.

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