There were encouraging signs but this performance will not necessarily sway those unconvinced of Stuart Pearce's qualities
If this was a brave new dawn, the teamsheet had a distinctly familiar feel about it. Injuries and respect for his opponents forced Pearce's hand but there may have been some disappointment in the crowd at the absence of new faces. Adam Johnson was perhaps the biggest surprise, preferred to James Milner or Theo Walcott, with Daniel Welbeck given the considerable responsibility of leading the line. Steven Gerrard overlooked for the captaincy, would be expected to form a fluid triangle in the middle of the pitch with the man chosen in his place, Scott Parker, and the holding midfielder Gareth Barry. Micah Richards, meanwhile, returned from international purdah to take up a position on the right of the defence. The other area of intrigue was, inevitably, the untried centre‑back partnership of Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling. This was evolution rather than revolution.
England kicked off as though all the rhetoric regularly spouted by FA suits about following the Spanish example had suddenly been taken on board overnight, with players rotating positions and appearing unhurried on the ball. Given their unfamiliarity, England began well enough. With a lack of pressure on the ball, Cahill and Smalling were able to play the ball out from the back. Pearce set his team up in a fluid formation and they were clearly under instructions to play their way through the Dutch backline with patient possession football. If anything, the build‑up was too patient – with Holland's pair of sitting midfielders in Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong able to mop up England's probing. As such, there were few clear sights of goal created and the midfield three appeared ponderous at times, taking too long to reach Ashley Young and Johnson on the wings. The contrast with Arjen Robben's directness was instructive. Gerrard's enforced removal necessitated a tactical tweak, with Daniel Sturridge taking up a position on the right wing and Young moving inside to sit behind Welbeck.
A pre-game montage of Euro 96 moments and a rendition of Three Lions got the crowd onside, but there was little interaction from the new England manager with the Wembley masses. A suited and booted Pearce appeared initially reluctant to make full use of his technical area but by the eighth minute was prowling the touchline, arms folded. He could be seen exhorting his players to play the ball through the midfield rather than going long to Welbeck and, even when his players showed little sign of being within hearing distance, attempted to bellow instructions. A long way from the Pearce pilloried for sitting glumly on the bench as Fabio Capello's stooge in South Africa, this was the demeanour of a man determined to seize his chance with both hands. But in the second half, he largely retreated to the bench and following the two swift Dutch goals he thrust his hands in his pockets and looked decidedly glum.
With Gerrard, already smarting from being overlooked for the captaincy, forced to come off injured just after the half‑hour with a tight hamstring Pearce took the bold decision to introduce Sturridge. It almost paid immediate dividends as the Chelsea player forced his way into the penalty area and played the ball across a gaping goal and he came close to scoring just after half time when Maarten Stekelenburg saved well from a snapshot. Pearce deserves credit for introducing Sturridge early, but it also prompted the question of why he didn't start. Milner came on for his club team-mate Gareth Barry at half‑time to little discernible effect. Following the break, England appeared to lose their way and Robben's solo goal prompted a flurry of activity on the bench but, before Stewart Downing could be introduced, England were two down. The Liverpool player eventually came on for Johnson, and Phil Jones was called into action for Smalling, who left the field on a stretcher.
Sir Trevor Brooking, one of the gang of four Club England board members responsible for appointing a new England manager, insisted on the pitch before this match that they were in no hurry. He even said a new manager could be "parachuted in" days before the European Championship. The growing impression is that there will be no official approach to Harry Redknapp until Tottenham's fate this season is settled, with Pearce as a possible backup. The longer the impasse goes on, the more attractive an option he may appear. But while there were some encouraging signs, this game will not have helped his chances among those still unsure of his qualities. The unhurried tempo at which the game was played and the lack of intensity also meant it was hard to judge how his line up would fare in the white heat of a major championship.