By Ewan Roberts
Though Roy Hodgson may have enjoyed England’s second half performance against San Marino, cruising to victory at a canter while Group H rivals Ukraine could only draw against Moldova, there was cause for concern in the 35 goalless minutes preceding the Three Lions' overdue breakthrough.
England had toiled against San Marino’s deep and compact defence for over a third of the match. Giampaolo Mazza’s side were conservative in the extreme, with the back five entrenched on their own 18-yard line, but they successfully limited Hodgson’s men almost exclusively to pot-shots from range.
Then, in the 35th minute, Danny Welbeck touched the ball past goalkeeper Aldo Junior Simoncini only for the San Marino shot-stopper to clip the Manchester United forward’s heels. Welbeck went tumbling, the referee pointed to the spot, and Wayne Rooney, captaining the side, dispatched the penalty with aplomb to put the hosts into the lead.
England struck four more times, and yet it wasn’t quite the thrashing the Wembley crowd might have expected. San Marino conceded six times at home to Montenegro and lost 10-0 against Poland (whom England face on Tuesday) last September, but the Three Lions were either less effective at breaking down San Marino, or a far kinder opposition.
The goals that England did finally score lacked a certain degree of panache and intelligence, and the respective performances of the two sides did not suggest that there are 202 places between them in the FIFA rankings.
Rooney’s spot-kick was followed by a low cross which Welbeck converted, then came Rooney’s placed finish after Aaron Lennon miscontrolled the ball, another low cross aimed at Welbeck and, lastly, a penalty box scramble that eventually saw Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain curl the ball into the top corner.
Throughout the match, and highlighted by the goals England scored, there was a lack of central penetration. The vast majority of England’s play was channelled down the flanks, with attacks through the middle easily repelled by the San Marino defence.
What England clearly and unequivocally lacked was a creator, a final third string-puller, an executioner. Even against the joint lowest-ranked side in the world, England had no player capable of breaking through the San Marino defence.
Rather than ripping a hole in the middle of the back five (though admittedly at times it looked more like a back nine) with intricate and intelligent pass-and-move football, Hodgson’s men instead greeted the wall of blue shirts with trepidation. They played the ball out wide, sought to go around San Marino and unleashed a volley of crosses into the box. But they never ruptured the centre of defence.
England’s lack of an inventive creator was even more damning as Spain cruised past Belarus with Juan Mata – a player who would walk into the current England side – not even in the squad. Mikel Arteta, Arsenal’s intelligent deep-lying playmaker, lacks even a single cap for the World and two-time European champions.
What Hodgson would give for a player of that skill-set. While England have Rooney and Tom Cleverley taking fruitless turns at occupying the hole, unsuccessfully attempting to unlock the defence, the top nations have a plethora of talents vying for that vital, influential position.
The Germans can count on Marco Reus, Mario Gotze and Mesut Ozil, Spain have Santi Cazorla, David Silva and Mata, the Netherlands have Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder. England have no one of that make or ilk.
The trequartista, or number 10, has been overlooked in England for some time, perhaps because of Premier League clubs’ dependence on foreign imports for the role, perhaps because of the inherent culture of the 4-4-2 formation (which does not accommodate such a position), perhaps because of precedence of physicality over technique at grassroots level.
Whatever the reason, it is arguable that England haven’t had a true creative spark since Paul Gascoigne hung up his international boots in 1998 (and picked up a six pack of lager, some finger-licking chicken and a fishing rod), while Paul Scholes, shunted out to the left flank, was never given an opportunity to shine in his preferred position for his country.
At one point, England boasted a long line of craftsmen and troubled geniuses, players capable of skill and trickery almost unimaginable to their peers, players of intelligence and vision, players capable of thinking outside of the box in order to penetrate it.
But more recently, England have excelled at creating the former (troubled) but forged few of the latter (geniuses). Do England make geniuses anymore? Are our grassroots systems, so often criticised for focussing too heavily on physique, capable of finding and nurturing minds that are so off-piste and undecipherable in terms of how they view the football pitch? Are artistic, creative minds incompatible with British power, passion and gusto?
As much as Hodgson’s England may lack flair, vision and intelligence, they certainly can’t be accused of lacking desire and work rate. But ultimately passion and hard graft alone have a low ceiling, as England’s quarter-final exit at Euro 2012 showed. Without craftsmen of the ability and esteem of those being churned out in Iberia, England have little chance of breaking down stronger defensive units than San Marino or toppling the more cultured nations that will descend upon Rio de Janeiro.
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