England v Hungary – the same old story

Just over one month ago, England showed plenty of attacking intent and a worrying amount of defensive ineptitude as they crashed out of the World Cup to Germany. Last night against Hungary it was a similar story, but thankfully for under-pressure manager Fabio Capello the opponents at Wembley were not clinical enough to capitalise on his own team’s shortcomings.

It is crazy to overlook obvious failings based on the result of a single game, but that did not stop the chorus of half-time boos disappearing when the curtain fell on an unconvincing victory. Similarly, captain Steven Gerrard, uninvolved and uninspiring in the first half, was hailed as a hero after his match-winning brace.

Personally, I am not one to boo my team, especially when I have paid good money to watch them play. But for those who are so inclined, England’s first-half display provided a decent excuse for expressing dissatisfaction in such a way. Shaky in defence, bland in midfield and toothless in attack, the only bright spark for Capello’s team was the energy of a rejuvenated Theo Walcott.

Walcott was one of England's best performers

The Arsenal wide-man is at his best when given space to run at defences, and he looked free from the hesitation which plagued Aaron Lennon’s displays in South Africa and Walcott’s own disappointing World Cup warm up. There are those who say his impact will be limited against the top teams when he has less space with which to work, but in 45 minutes against Hungary the former Southampton player demonstrated what England lacked against mediocre opposition in the group stage.

Walcott was among several players absent from the World Cup squad who were given a chance to impress last night, but few grasped the opportunity. His club team-mate Kieran Gibbs showed some good touches after replacing Ashley Cole at the interval, while Bobby Zamora’s creative movement and well-saved long-range effort were about as much as we can expect from a striker who has plenty of willing but little in the way of international class.

During England’s World Cup campaign, much was made of the lack of pace and conviction at centre-back. While improving somewhat on Terry and Upson’s lack of mobility, both Michael Dawson and Phil Jagielka looked uncomfortable at the back, culminating in the comedy of errors which led to the opener for Hungary. One might expect the duo, both established first-team players at their respective clubs, not to be overawed by the situation, but that was not the case.

Among the other new (or new-ish) faces, only Adam Johnson was given the full 90 minutes to impress. The Manchester City winger cannot be accused of shying away from the opportunity, but those watching will have got the impression he was striving too hard to impress after being left out of the World Cup 23. A criminal miss in the first half, the like of which would have seen more established team mates panned, summed up Johnson’s over-eagerness to impress.

Cahill is still waiting for his full England debut

While Capello was more open to change than some of his predecessors have been, many players will feel disappointed not to have been given a chance to take to the field. Gary Cahill and Carlton Cole, the only outfield players to remain on the bench, must be wondering what they need to do to get an extended run-out for the national team. And while others retained their place in spite of a poor World Cup, Peter Crouch was not given the opportunity to add to the 15-or-so minutes he played in South Africa.

At least it was not all doom and gloom, though. Joe Hart put in an assured performance in goal, giving the impression he may be able to fill the position for years to come. That is, providing fans do not jump on any mistake he makes, as has been the case with Green and Robinson before him. A rare glimmer of promise on a night which showed a lot of work needs to be done.

***

Before I leave you for this week, I would like to take a minute to remember Adam Stansfield, the Exeter City striker who lost his battle with cancer at the age of just 31.

Stansfield was a rare commodity, a footballer who no one had a bad word to say about, and he will be sorely missed. For those who want to know a little more about him, I recommend you read this sensitive tribute from Gary Andrews.

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