An early goal, they say, settles a team down and loosens them up. In England's case, that rare and precious commodity can have the opposite effect. A sudden outbreak of euphoria in the opening stages of a match can be the enemy of coherence, as we saw after Jermain Defoe's 13th senior international goal provided a swift reward for the 73,000 who turned up on a warm London night to see if Fabio Capello could inject a greater sense of purpose into the national team.
The first goal was a beauty, albeit one with its origins in the most mundane of errors by the Bulgarian defence. Wayne Rooney was made a gift of possession by Stanislav Manolev, the right-back, and responded by launching an exquisite chip that found Ashley Cole's run into the six-yard box, beyond the stranded Manolev. After the left-back's shot had been blocked, his second bite at the cherry produced a neat square cross that Defoe volleyed home from close range.
Speed of thought, precision of technique, anticipation, initiative and persistence – it had everything you might expect from a side still ranked, albeit mystifyingly, seventh in Fifa's world standings. But then came the misplaced passes, the muddled attempts at creative interplay, a Glen Johnson backpass that forced Joe Hart into his best save of the first half, and the sight of Rooney, alone on the left touchline, attempting a sort of Cruyff turn but only managing to fumble the ball into touch, with the nearest opponent 10 yards away.
That, too, is mystifying, and such moments of befuddlement convey the message that clarity will not be restored to the England squad simply through the launch of a perfectly decent new strip. And by the way, what was wrong with the old one? Barely a year ago we were being informed of the virtues of its "reduced internal seam friction", "improvement thermal regulation", and a collar said to be "shaped at the shoulder with a two-piece collar stand for 'motion control'". No such technical claims are being made for the new one, which was designed, it is said, by Peter Saville, the man whose plundering of the innovations of the Italian Futurist movement gave birth to the graphics that distinguished Tony Wilson's Factory Records in the late 1970s.
England could do with a New Order, of course, and there is also a joke in there somewhere about Fabio Capello and Italian Futurism, possibly to be made by someone who really believes that the England manager is trying to take his team back to the dark ages with a distinctly retro 4-4-2 formation. But Capello is right when he says that we are wrong to think in terms of strict formations. Modern football – at least since Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff and the Dutch of the 1970s – is about fluidity. The challenge is to persuade the team not just to accept the theory and practise it on the training ground but to reproduce it in matches, particularly when there is something at stake. So far his success has been at best intermittent and unconvincing.
Capello rose to his feet once or twice before the interval to make a point to his players, something he eschewed during the match against Hungary, when he seemed to be trying to prove that his modus operandi in the technical area is not restricted to an opera buffa of impotent bellowing and wild gestures of frustration. He was on his feet again in the second half last night after Glen Johnson had failed to cut out Valeri Bojinov's short pass to Ivelin Popov, who should have equalised as he cut in from the left but instead floated his shot across the unprotected Hart and wide of the far post.
The swathes of empty seats in the upper tier and, more dismayingly for the Football Association's financial officers, the middle tier, where the corporate hospitality folk pay premium prices, spoke of the sense of disillusionment felt by a section of the England support. This is a post-World Cup phenomenon that a scratchy win in a friendly against lowly Hungary and combative words from the manager had not been enough to dissipate.
There was the sort of febrile atmosphere that usually attends friendly games in the summer months, when children make up a large proportion of the attendance and their excitement is not dimmed by dull play. But it was a sign of the paucity of England's invention and ability to create excitement that after a mere 35 minutes, the soundtrack to the Mexican wave was making its way round Wembley.
Defoe's second goal, which itself could be seen as more than England deserved, came as the product of a textbook counterattack, as did his third. Both scoring shots were distinguished by great composure, and so was the one from Adam Johnson that separated them – and which also demonstrated that the Manchester City winger is in real competition with Theo Walcott for the right-sided position. Welcome as they were, these moments nevertheless seemed out of context with the remainder of the performance against a team ranked 43rd in the world.
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