Thankfully that is another Interlull (© Arseblog) out of the way, well at least until next month when we have to do it all again. I watched some of England’s game against Malta, what I mean is I managed to survive watching the recording long enough on Saturday night to see the two goals go in but after that gave up. From what I saw, and by all accounts, it was a frustrating match, from the kick off Malta retreated deep towards their own penalty area and set about the challenge of being hard to break down. England laboured for the majority of the first half but finally managed to open up the massed Maltese defensive ranks just before the half hour mark when Daniel Sturridge headed home a cross from his Liverpool team-mate Jordan Henderson. Dele Alli made it two before the break when he poked in the rebound after his initial shot was saved.
If we were expecting an avalanche of goals in the second half we were sadly left wanting. While it is undoubtedly true that there are no easy games in international football these days, the fact that England’s performance just petered out hinted that there are serious issues within the squad in terms of confidence and temperament. The most astonishing fact was that 82,000 people flocked to Wembley for this match; if they were hoping to see signs of encouragement that, after the debacle of the summer, England were moving in the right direction, they were to leave frustrated.
Skipper Wayne Rooney was booed by some of the crowd before and during the match; which is probably as much to do with ongoing disaffection, after the disaster in France in the summer, as with his current form. However the fact that interim coach Gareth Southgate opted to play him in a deeper midfield role in preference to Eric Dier, one of the only players that looked the part over the summer, won’t have helped. Especially as Rooney’s club manager Jose Mourinho has made it abundantly clear that a midfield role isn’t one to which the England skipper is suited.
Surprisingly Southgate dropped his skipper to the bench and reinstated Dier for the trip to Ljubljana on Tuesday night; surprising from the point of view that he was brave enough to do what his predecessors weren’t and as Steve Bates so aptly put it on Sky Sports’ Sunday Supplement show, ‘to be the man to shoot Bambi’. Brave as it was, the decision did little to improve the performance of the team; instead this time England had to be thankful that for all his travails since the summer Joe Hart remains a good shot-stopper, as the keeper pretty much single-handedly kept them from the embarrassment of what would have been their first defeat in a qualifying fixture for 7 years.
As well as the now familiar bluntness in attack, this game also showed a self-destructive tendency and fragility in defence; time and again defensive errors set up chances for Slovenia with sloppy, no-look back passes, poor defensive organisation and simple individual errors. If the hosts had been able to finish more effectively, England would have been in real trouble before half-time and even more so in the second half.
The structure of the qualifying group is such that England should be able to secure automatic qualification for Russia with relative ease, after all they are undefeated in 3 matches, 2 of which have been away to two of the higher ranked teams in the group; however it feels that if the campaign is to end in anything other than the ignominy of the past two tournaments, drastic improvement is needed; quite where that is going to come from is anyone’s guess.
We can now look ahead to the return of Premier League action and the standout fixture of the weekend comes on Monday night when Jose Mourinho takes his Manchester United team to Anfield to face Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. It is just over a year since the charismatic German swept into the club, not so much a breath of fresh air, more a tornado of transformation. While in terms of actual results he hasn’t achieved a great deal more than his predecessor Brendan Rodgers, the impact that he has had on the players, fans and club overall is undeniable. Certainly looking from the outside, it seems very much like Liverpool are a club that is going somewhere again; which as a supporter of one of their rivals is somewhat concerning to say the least! Question marks still remain over Liverpool’s defence and their ability to last the course over a full season; yet one thing that has stood out during Klopp’s reign so far has been their ability to put in performances and get results in big games. I feel that we can fully expect Liverpool to come flying at United right from the kick off and to try and blitz them in the opening period just as they did against Chelsea; however arch-pragmatist Mourinho, will no doubt be expecting just that and may revert to type and try to nullify Liverpool’s threat and endeavour to kill the game, recognising that a defeat at Anfield, even at this early stage of the season may have serious implications for the rest of the season. However it shapes up, it promises to be an intriguing contest.