After seeing the original kick-off time of Tuesday night abandoned because of rain, England limped to a draw the following afternoon in Warsaw, leaving Roy Hodgson’s team with their second draw in four qualifiers and some work to do if they are to reach Brazil in 2014.
Hodgson rang the changes to side that thrashed San Marino on Friday, James Milner was preferred to Aaron Lennon to take Theo Walcott’s place on the right of midfield, Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson came in for Leighton Baines and Kyle Walker at full-back, Steven Gerrard was welcomed back from his suspension to take the place of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in midfield whilst Jermain Defoe came in for Danny Welbeck, despite the Manchester United man’s 2 goals on Friday.
England lined up with Tom Cleverley on the left-hand side with James Milner occupying the right hand side. With both essentially being central-midfielders, it made for a very narrow looking line-up.
Width was asked to be provided by the full-backs, Ashley Cole was especially charged with moving forward due to Cleverley’s obvious struggle to adapt to his wide role. Poland exposed the gaps Cole and, to a lesser degree, Johnson left behind by pressing high up in midfield and winning the ball back quickly so they could charge out to the flanks. Ludovic Obraniak and Robert Lewandowski, excellent in his lone role in attack for Poland, were instructed to drift wide into the channels, therefore outnumbering the England full-backs. Poland created a regular flow of chances early on by putting crosses into the box.
Lukasz Piszcek was also instrumental to Poland’s wing play, the Dortmund man was superb in flying forward to provide support to Kamil Grosicki, most notably as he was permitted by Cleverley’s constant urge to move inside. Roy Hodgson reacted to this by swapping Milner out to the left, then Rooney for a short period, but still Piszcek managed to get forward with worrying ease.
England, rather bizarrely on what was a huge pitch, had no natural width of their own due to two centre-midfielders being asked to play there and it was frustrating to see the likes of Aaron Lennon and Chamberlain sit on the bench when they would have stretched Poland out to the touch line and provided an outlet, as well as the ability to beat a man and get crosses into a poaching striker in Jermain Defoe.
In the centre, Michael Carrick and Steven Gerrard were very similar as deep lying-midfielders, neither were willing to carry the ball forward and with Wayne Rooney clearly instructed to stay up alongside Defoe, the Spurs man being a diminutive presence and he would have been isolated too easily if he had no support, it created a huge gap between midfield and attack, hence a lot of long balls into the channels that ultimately proved fruitless.
That, together with Poland dominating the flanks, left Carrick and Gerrard short of options and Poland could press them effectively to launch a break, one such one saw Obraniak shoot wide on the stroke of half-time. The standard of English ball retention was wretched and it invited pressure that was to turn, rather inevitably, costly in the end.
Wayne Rooney may have headed England ahead from a corner, another Steven Gerrard-delivered set-piece, but it didn’t take away from the fact England were sluggish, lethargic and set-up to be needlessly cautious against weaker opposition.
In the second-half, Poland had the majority of the play, Lewandowski shot wide as constant pressure, stemming from the fact Hodgson persisted with Defoe despite him clearly being unable to hold the ball up, was enthused on Joe Hart’s goal. The Manchester City goalkeeper failing to reach a corner and Kemal Glik headed a deserved equaliser.
Danny Welbeck, a better option when seeking a link-up, target man striker than Defoe, was on by then, it took Hodgson until the 66th minute, but it was too late. Though, after his introduction, some of the pressure was eased and England were rarely troubled for the last 15 minutes. Oxlade-Chamberlain came on for Wayne Rooney to inject some more energy, but it was all too late as England remained generally flat and short of ideas.
It was a case of wrong-team selection and a system that suggested a concerning lack of ambition from Hodgson, stuck in a rigid two-banks of four which handed Poland the initiative throughout. One would have suspected, in order to take the game to the Poles, a 4-2-3-1 with two genuine wide players in Lennon and Oxlade-Chamberlain operating alongside Rooney and Welbeck who would have dragged defenders around to make space in a fluid front-line. Yet, Hodgson, in what is becoming a familiar trait, chose to set up cautiously and a point was all such a lack of ambition warranted from the trip to Warsaw.
Hodgson will go back to the drawing board as he looks to crack the elusive code in the quest to create a fully-cohesive England side, but it is a worry that he is imprinting his uninspiring, low-risk approach that saw him stabilise West Brom and Fulham, but fail miserably in his most recent high-pressure job, at Liverpool.
England will now travel to Sweden next month for a friendly while Brazil are pencilled in for a visit to Wembley in February, before group H commitments kick-up again in March with two away games vs San Marino and Montenegro. As it stands, Montenegro trail England by a point with a game in hand and are likely to be above Roy Hodgson’s men before that vital night in Podgorica. With some cracks appearing in Hodgson’s tenure with questions raised over style of play, it could well be pivotal for the manager, as well as the team.