England in their smart new Oxford and Cambridge strip of dark and light blue came through the least troubling of examinations on Friday night. The adoption – at last – of a modern and rational 4-2-3-1 formation gave them a structure that offered reliability in defence and flexibility in attack, enabling them to seize the initiative against opponents every bit as undistinguished as their recent record suggested.
There were flares and rockets in the stadium and banners bearing the images of the 19th‑century revolutionary heroes who freed Bulgarians from the Ottoman yoke, but several thousand empty seats told a less stirring story. Lothar Matthäus's side showed little or no improvement over the team, then coached by Stanimir Stoilov, who lost at Wembley a year ago.
A quotation from Friedrich Schiller, in both the original German and a Bulgarian translation, adorns the façade of Sofia's Vasil Levski Stadium: "A man is only truly a man where he plays." Perhaps more relevantly to the England football team under Fabio Capello, the great 18th‑century philosopher also said: "There is a limit to a tyrant's power."
Capello has tended to be the servant of events rather than their master, the latter surely having been what England expected on the Italian's appointment three and a half years ago. The current trend towards incorporating talented young players seems to have been forced upon him but on Friday night at least he made the most of it.
His selection was an interesting one, with no conventional centre‑forward, two holding midfielders and no place for Frank Lampard in the starting XI. Slowly, slowly, the older generation is slipping into the shadows. Rio Ferdinand's No5 shirt was taken by Gary Cahill, and the Bolton Wanderers defender celebrated his fourth appearance with the opening goal, an opportunist shot which found the net off the Bulgarian goalkeeper's legs while the defence was in disarray following a corner kick.
And what was that about no centre‑forward? Six minutes after Cahill's first goal for England Wayne Rooney was scoring his first international goal in a year by meeting a corner kick from the right with the sort of thumping header that, as it is traditional to say on these occasions, would have done Nat Lofthouse proud. In the last minute of the half he was there to add another with a tap-in.
Tactically the most interesting aspect of England's performance as they went three goals up was the freedom Theo Walcott, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing were given to interchange in the line behind Rooney, all taking turns at slotting into each of the three positions across the pitch. The presence of Gareth Barry and Scott Parker meant that the creative trio needed to spend little time worrying about defensive duties, while Barry and Parker were not burdened with the need to show imagination.
For the third goal it was Walcott carrying the ball infield from the right, feeding Young with a reverse pass before Old Trafford's new hero produced the low cross for Rooney that further exposed Bulgaria's defensive flaws. But the confident slickness of the move was impressive and England were firmly on the front foot.
Cahill, on the eve of the first anniversary of his senior international debut in the home defeat of the Bulgarians, contributed several decisive interventions before the interval, chasing back to rob Tsvetan Genkov on one occasion before heading a flat right‑wing cross away from the same player with a smart piece of anticipation. Chris Smalling, at 21 the youngest member of the team here, showed signs of uncertainty on his debut – and inexperience in the right‑back position – when allowing a deep cross from the opposite flank to float over his head to the lurking Martin Petrov.
From Bulgaria there was no sign of the sort of football once associated with Georgi Asparuhov and Hristo Stoichkov, not to mention Dimitar Berbatov, whose decision to step away from international football in order to concentrate on his career with Manchester United now seems rather sadly pointless. Their most combative moments on Friday night were provided by Blagoy Georgiev, a 29-year-old midfielder from FC Terek Grozny in Chechnya. Hirsute and powerful, Georgiev looked every inch the sort of chap who might not need persuading to carry on playing in a war zone.
England had trouble maintaining their efficiency in the second half and could have doubled the score with better concentration but once again they had played on foreign soil in the sort of positive manner they find difficult to emulate at home. Wales at Wembley, a fixture no more threatening on paper than this affair here, will be an interesting test of their ability to hold the mood and, more so, of the real depth of Capello's influence.