When the final whistle blew at the end of England’s Group F World Cup Qualifier against Scotland it was difficult to know what to think. A whirlwind finish gave fans of both sides a strange mix of emotions. A free kick double in the last three minutes of normal time from Scotland’s Leigh Griffiths sunk the English mood and sky rocketed the Scots into elation. The boot was on the other foot in the third minute of stoppage time when Raheem Sterling drilled a ball into the box and Harry Kane ghosted in to salvage a point for England. The result was just acceptable for the English camp given the circumstances. They still have their fate in their own hands in the group. However, the performance was not satisfactory. Far from it.
The goals England conceded are vital to understanding what went wrong. Two goals directly from free kicks in the space of three minutes mean that questions must be raised over goalkeeper Joe Hart. The first goal was a decent hit, Griffiths made good contact and the line of the ball was okay as well. Would you expect a top level goalkeeper like Hart to deal with it? Yes you would. It does not find the corner and the keepers positioning is not what you would expect. However, the huge problem with this goal from a defensive point of view has to be the wall. There are two issues here, the first is that the wall is too wide. Hart leaves a gap in-between himself and the wall. He is set up as if he expects the right footed Stuart Armstrong to hit it.
The second is something that Hart could not effect. The wall does not move. The first movement anybody in the wall makes is to look around to see where the ball has gone. Harry Kane and Chris Smalling, who the ball goes over, do not jump and allow the ball to go over them and beat their keeper. Would they have blocked the shot if they attempted to? More than likely. This is to take nothing away from the strike. Griffiths hit the ball clean and did everything right in hitting the target.
On the second occasion the wall did make an effort to block the free kick. It ended in the same result though with Griffiths claiming his brace. While Hart may share the blame with the wall on the first occasion he has nobody but himself to blame on the second. Again a decent strike from the Scottish striker but a shot that Hart would expect to save. He seemed slow to react to the effort and could not make up the ground to get to the ball. Hart must seriously be considering his position. After the European Championships were he let a free kick squeeze past him from Gareth Bale. Recently he has received a lot of criticism and the forced nature of his exit from Manchester City has took a bit of gloss off his reputation. Now he faces competition for his England number one shirt like he has never before. Rumours suggest that Tom Heaton of Burnley will get a chance in the friendly against France. He has had a fantastic season with Burnley and deserves his chance. There is also the in demand under 21 goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. Gossip has intensified regarding a £30 million move to Everton after a great season with relegated Sunderland. Potentially the biggest threat to Hart’s position is Stoke keeper Jack Butland. He has had a season full of disappointment. He was injured when England won in Germany 3-2 and has been out for over 12 months. It is fair to argue that if the Stoke goalkeeper had played this season and developed at the same rate he would have replaced Hart in-between the sticks for England.
The real issue lies before a ball was kicked, with the squad selection. When the team was announced there were concerns surrounding the midfield. Eric Dier who has suffered a dip in form recently was the more experienced member of the midfield two. He was paired with Jake Livermore of West Brom. The lack of experience here was worrying in such an intense atmosphere. Looking at the rest of the squad you see the unbalance. Options in this area are sparse. England had Phil Jones who can play in midfield as he has for England in the past. Is he natural there? No. You also have wide midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who can ‘do a job’ in central midfield but, is he natural there? No. So options are limited clearly and if you persist in playing two holding midfield players you must have options.
Why do England have a lack of central midfield players? Jordan Henderson is injured, Jack Wilshere the same. That is two options already that the three lions have had taken away from them. Jamie Redknapp after the game pointed out that Ross Barkley was omitted from the squad. The Everton man has potential and this season has been a little disappointing for him. But to not get into that squad is preposterous. His preferred position is behind the striker but he has played in central midfield. This has to be an influence on why England could not do the job in Scotland.
When the senior squad lacks numbers the management of the national team must look at the under 21 side. Understandably the under 21’s have a European Championship to tackle this year and after the under 20’s success it seems the FA are looking to promote the youth teams and make them more successful. This is a good thing for the hopes of future success. When players like James Ward-Prowse, Lewis Baker and Will Hughes are all in the under 21 squad you now see that England do have options. Marcus Rashford had the chance to play in the European Championships for the younger team but was still called up, so why could they not do the same with one of the central midfield options?
If you are not going to select youth why not look to bring back an older player. Michael Carrick has often been overlooked and said to have an amount of caps way below his ability. It is not the fashionable thing to do, recall up an older player when you have a wealth of younger talent who need experience on the big stage – if you are not going to do either and struggle for choices in that position there will be no progress. Even his Manchester United team mate Wayne Rooney has played central midfield for club and country. When struggling for options in a certain position the selection team need to explore all options to make sure there is adequate cover for each position.
Looking back at the game that took place at Hampden Park these two issues are at the centre of what went wrong. England went in to the game favourites and expecting to win. By the end of it the draw was a positive result. The performance was below par. Scotland were able to dominate midfield and expose England’s back line. No offence to Scotland as they are a good side, but against an elite side England would have been embarrassed. The youth need to be given a more chances in general but when options are limited it is vital. Ward-Prowse is an exciting prospect and could soon be a regular in the England side so why not now? It seems an age ago that our biggest problem was solving the Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard problem and now we do not have one leader or world class player in the middle of the park.