I find watching England under Fabio Capello absolutely fascinating. The Italian has achieved plenty in the modern game but you get the sense he’s still learning about the players he has at his disposal and how they can perform at the very highest level.
The one criticism that can be levelled at England during Capello’s short reign is that they remain a little meek against the very best side. Early in his tenure, they lost a rather low-octane friendly in France and they were rather easily brushed aside by Spain, though there’s no shame in that. What was most alarming about the first half in Amsterdam tonight was the almost casual attitude England adopted in possession.
They didn’t have a lot of it – and that should have made them more careful with the ball. Instead, England were sloppy. The contrast between our jittery passing and how comfortable the Dutch were on the ball was stark. That being said, Holland hadn’t really threatened Robert Green when they were gifted the opening goal. Rio Ferdinand played a dozy ball right across the face of goal and presented Dirk Kuyt with a simple opportunity. Unbelievably, the Liverpool forward nearly fluffed it taking the ball too far as he rounded Green and giving John Terry more of a chance on the line than he should have with his subsequent shot.
The Dutch second goal was just as abject from an England point of view. This time Gareth Barry played a sloppy backpass towards Terry – even more unforgivable as he was playing the way he was facing and could see the danger – and Kuyt raced clear. Green was out quickly to parry the first shot but Rafael van der Vaart gratefully tucked home the rebound.
England offered little going forward. Ashley Young whipped in a couple of threatening crosses but his teammates failed to find him with any great regularity and they looked most dangerous when they hit high balls towards Emile Heskey. From one Heskey flick-on, Rooney fired an instinctive volley just wide of the far post.
There was plenty of pessimism at half-time but England’s fringe players emerged with a point to prove. It is widely thought that Jermain Defoe has the most to lose from Michael Owen’s possible resurgence with Manchester United but the Spurs forward gave Capello a graphic demonstration of his potency in front of goal with a couple of very smart finishes. The first punished a Dutch defensive mistake and was well taken after Frank Lampard had sent him clear.
The second was a typical poacher’s effort inside the six yard box after a burst down the left from another impressive substitute, James Milner. The Aston Villa had waited long enough for his first senior cap – after making a record 41 appearances for the England under-21 side – and showed just what he had to offer. His was a tireless performance, full of running and eager to whip in an early ball. He embarassed Johnny Heitinga for England’s equaliser and did more than enough to earn a second chance from Capello.
Capello would also have been cheered by the contribution of Carlton Cole, who is probably as close to a direct replacement for Emile Heskey as we’ve got. Cole held the ball up brilliantly, played intelligently with his back to goal and looked to involve his teammates as much as possible. He linked the play with clever passes and was confident enough to try a breathtaking bit of skill, flicking the ball into the air and volleying at goal from distance. The ball brushed the side netting and Cole was fractions away from the goal his encouraging performance deserved.
HOLLAND (4-3-3): Stekenlenburg; Heitinga, Braafheid, Ooijer, Mathijsen; de Jong, van der Vaart (Sneijder 45), Schaars (Mendes Da Silva 82); Kuyt (Huntelaar 78), van Persie (Babel 45), Robben (Afellay 55).
GOALS: Kuyt (10), van der Vaart (37).
ENGLAND (4-4-2): Green; Johnson, A. Cole (Bridge 84), Ferdinand, Terry; Barry (Carrick 45), Lampard, Beckham (Wright-Phillips 45), Young (Milner 68); Heskey (Defoe 45), Rooney (C. Cole 59).
GOALS: Defoe (49, 77).
REFEREE: N. Rizzoli (Italy).