The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
I don’t know much about rifle terminology. Can a bore be off? Is that something that could happen to a rifle? I think Wayne Rooney’s bore was off tonight, because he essentially played the game of an assassin who brilliantly scales the ivy outside the bell-tower, swirls his black cape over his shoulders, sets up the perfect shot and then, when the king’s carriage rolls out, squeezes the trigger only to have the bullet fly off at a skewed angle and clang off the bell so that lights come up in all the guardhouse windows. That is, he played very, very well, made some beautiful runs and slipped into killer positions, but every time he sent the ball toward goal it was like the angle in his mind couldn’t stand to be outdone by the angle in reality. Had he been properly calibrated, it could have been 4-1: just worth noting.
But no one was watching for Wayne Rooney. We were watching to see Capello, and what Capello would mean to an England team that, in rifle terms, basically needed to have someone take them to the rifle store, help them pick out a rifle, pay for the rifle, and then hire a man named Clintock to instruct them in its use. I thought the signs were pretty good, even during the long stretch of the first half when Jenas and Gerrard were doing nothing in central midfield and the only movement of the ball England seemed to be able to achieve was a square pass endlessly repeated between Wes Brown and David Bentley. The defending wasn’t great, and Switzerland had a few good chances—fortunately for England, Barnetta had some of the same ideas about geometry as Rooney—but there was a patience and an air of dauntlessness in England’s build-up play that seemed, specifically and deliberately, Italian.
Then, for about fifteen minutes spanning the end of the first half and the start of the second, England managed a spell of play that was as good as anything I’ve seen from them since the World Cup: well-timed runs, instinctive movement of the ball to the most threatening spots on the pitch, and above all, a series of ruthlessly played through balls and crosses from Bentley and Joe Cole that allowed England players time and again to test Diego Benaglio. For that stretch, with Cole doing tipsy medieval jigs to beat his defender (one led to the goal in the forty-first minute), Rooney and Jenas breaking through toward goal, and Bentley playing looping crosses to find them, you could start to see what the identity of this new team might look like once it’s fully formed.
I’m not sure it was a complete vindication of Capello’s tactics. Cole, who started as a withdrawn striker, looked best when he moved to the left, from which position he drove Gareth Barry back and out of the flow of play. This happened so often that I began to wonder if the team would be more efficient with Jenas in Cole’s position, Cole in Barry’s, and Barry in Jenas’s. But the match revealed a good deal about how Capello might use each player and what sort of balance they could achieve. And considering that he’s only spent a short time working with the team, the signs looked broadly encouraging.
I was especially impressed with David Bentley, who easily filled David Beckham’s shoes on the right side of midfield. He was involved in more dangerous moves than any other England player but Rooney, passed and crossed well (and England have more trouble with the latter than anyone generally seems to notice), and showed “flashes of pace,” as writers say when they’re working on deadlines. I’m a fan of David Beckham, but the last time he showed a flash of pace he was being chased by photographers and driving a Cadillac Escalade. The crowd, at one point, chanted “there’s only one David Beckham”; so there is, but tonight England were lucky that he was watching the game in a low Earth orbit from the splendor of his personal space shuttle.
Switzerland are really not a very good team, particularly with the injuries they’ve sustained (Senderos is something like their 25th-choice captain), and can’t be counted as much of a test. And the defending was worrisome at times, with Derdiyok’s goal coming after a lapse by Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole barely present throughout the night. France, when England play them later this year, will give us a chance to make a more complete assessment of Capello’s impact on the team, as will his use of the currently injured Frank Lampard. But based on the performance tonight, on the retooled midfield and on the attitude displayed by the players, the indications are promising.
by Brian Phillips · February 6, 2008