By Liam Twomey
It is depressing and yet also fitting that, less than a fortnight after the Football Association’s new national football centre in St George’s Park finally opened for business amid much fanfare and a glowing appraisal from major figures throughout the domestic game, Roy Hodgson’s England travelled to Poland and delivered a timely reminder of why change is so desperately needed.
On the surface, emerging from a rain-soaked and intimidatingly raucous Warsaw National Stadium with a draw is but the latest so-so chapter in the solid if unspectacular story of this World Cup campaign. But the majority of those who witnessed the afternoon’s events will be left in a far more depressed state of mind.
In truth, England escaped with a point after being dominated by a team boasting only two players of significant European pedigree and ranked some 49 places below them in the world.
Admittedly Jermain Defoe and Wayne Rooney both wasted presentable opportunities to double a lead given to them by the Manchester United man’s miscued first-half header, but these proved rare convincing forays forward within the wider context of what at times resembled a siege.
The problems which plagued England on Wednesday afternoon were nothing new or surprising, but the pain of witnessing them never dulls. Misplaced passes evading statuesque, isolated team-mates, a side pushed back by superior competence in possession, and a trademark rearguard action eventually failing in the face of wave upon wave of unrelenting pressure.
Hodgson’s midfielders all exhibited different symptoms of the English malaise. Steven Gerrard went into quarterback mode, consistently playing high-risk diagonal passes to colleagues incapable of receiving them. Shunted out onto the left flank, Tom Cleverley looked lost and confused.
James Milner, as ever, toiled admirably, but performances like this risk him being cast sneeringly as the quintessential ‘honest’ English footballer. Michael Carrick, often touted the forgotten man of the national team, did nothing worth remembering, ponderous on the ball and passive off it.
For midfielders widely considered to be among the very best the country has to offer, none showed the required poise, intelligence or technical aptitude to thrive on the international stage. The qualifying process is more forgiving of England’s glaring weaknesses but, on this evidence, Brazil 2014, should they make it there, will end in humiliation to far superior speed of thought and foot.
A still more depressing truth is that a glance at Hodgson’s wider midfield options reveals only one with the necessary qualities to dominate a modern battle in the middle of the pitch – one who has been forced to watch his countrymen toil on the television for the last 18 months.
Prior to the injury nightmare which halted his phenomenal and seemingly inexorable rise at the beginning of last season, Jack Wilshere had established himself as one of the finest young playmakers in world football, and the most polished midfield technician since Paul Gascoigne.
Such a lengthy absence at such a young age, of course, raises legitimate and worrying questions about whether he can ever be the talisman both club and country need him to be. Arsene Wenger likely ran out of fingers to cross while anxiously watching the youngster complete the full 90 minutes in a training ground friendly against Chelsea on Wednesday.
Based on the evidence of Warsaw, though, he was far from the only one.