Covert Operations: Welcome To England’s Uninhibited New Frontier!


I’m not going to get carried away.

But judging by England’s performance against Italy in Berne on Wednesday night, there is reason to be cheerful, and at last reason to believe our national team can become more than the demoralising sum of its parts that we’re accustomed to.

Now, I appreciate how odd it is to be focussing on England and international football on the eve of the new domestic season. If truth be told, I’m not entirely comfortable with it myself. In fact, just last week I was bemoaning the merits of a ‘pointless’ international friendly on the eve of the real stuff. But, after the limited functionality and consequent anxiety of Euro 2012, Wednesday’s improbable victory hinted at a new era of freedom and purpose. And that has enlightened me.

With barely a couple of days’ preparation, Roy Hodgson’s experimental new side merged the age-old facets of our national footballing identity: effort, solidarity, tempo, aggression, with a series of altogether more alien concepts: patience, cuteness, enterprise. Somehow we were brighter, bolder, more daring – and I’m not talking about those god-awful red shorts.

At the last two major tournaments, and in most of the qualifying games, England’s strategy has been rigid, choreographed and pre-conditioned not to lose. As such, we’ve not lost many and are inexplicably ranked third in the world. But on the same token we’ve not reached the last four of a major tournament – a marker that actually matters – this millennium.

Thanks to our strategy of avoiding defeat at all costs, the players have gone out onto the pitches of South Africa and Ukraine with the wrong midsets – they’ve been beset by what sports psychologists call a NAF: a need to avoid failure, rather than a NAC: a need to achieve.

This manifests itself across the pitch; from short back passes by defenders and hurried clearances from goalkeepers, to midfielders passing the buck to the next guy and forwards unwilling to take risks, to beat a man, to thread a clever pass through the eye of needle, or to shoot from long range. 

Whisper it quietly, but on Wednesday against Italy, our team’s mentality had changed.

Firstly, there was a distinct departure from the two banks of four that became indicative of the Euro 2012 campaign. In fact, with Kyle Walker and Leighton Baines bombing forward, there was seldom even one bank of four.

Meanwhile, in the most part, our front six were flexible. Not flexible in the “I don’t know what I’m meant to be doing, so I’m just going to wander into different positions, wave my arms and hope I get the ball” kind of way (a la Wayne Rooney against Italy and Ukraine in June,) but flexible in an instinctive, interchanging concerto, the like of which I’ve seldom seen in the Three Lions since Terry Venables’ Christmas Tree disciples of 1996.

On Wednesday, Adam Johnson pirouetted past full-backs, Frank Lampard knitted play together with composure and Tom Cleverley was moving, well… cleverly – gliding into pockets of space and forcing Italy to think twice about who and where they were marking. Suddenly England were passing the ball, moving into space and taking risks with no fear of reprisal. What a novel idea.

The chief reason for this improvement lies in the identity of England’s deepest lying midfield player. In this supreme era of possession play within the upper echelons of the international game, the holding role has become the most significant.

Take Euro 2012 as a case in point: look at the way Xavi and Busquets patrolled Spain’s midfield, likewise Pirlo and De Rossi with Italy’s. Meanwhile, for all of Scott Parker’s gusto and Steven Gerrard’s Roy Of The Rovers-style greatness, we lacked an anchorman. We lacked a Michael Carrick.

I’m sure the reasons behind Carrick’s self-imposed exile earlier this year will come to the fore in time. But for now I can only say I’m flabbergasted that one of the most intelligent passers of his generation has made only fleeting appearances in the white of England.

In Berne, making his first start for two and a half years, Carrick was superb. But more than his own individual performance - somewhere between an 7 or 8 out of 10 - it was his natural attributes that offered us a new dimension. He served as the catalyst to England’s patience and composure and the platform on which their inventiveness was built.

Unlike any other Englishman – bar perhaps Jack Wilshere and Paul Scholes – Michael Carrick has an innate ability to dictate the tempo of a game. This is borne out of a perfect fusion of intelligence and technique. By nature, his work calms those around him. On Wednesday his patience was infectious, and thus off came the shackles from his team-mates: possession was retained, risks were taken, incisiveness achieved. Oh, and the match was won.  

There have been false dawns like this before, and I’m not saying we’re going to win the 2014 World Cup just yet. In fact, I reserve the right to lambast Hodgson for dropping Cleverley and Carrick and pairing Gerrard and Lampard together when we meet Moldova and Ukraine for qualifiers in two weeks’ time.

But for now I dare to dream of a national side that invokes pride for its ingenuity as well as its effort.

I mean, had Jermain Defoe latched onto James Milner’s cross at the end of that free-flowing move in the last five minutes on Wednesday, we’d have scored a goal akin to that of Brazil’s Carlos Alberto in 1970.

OK, so I’ve gone and got carried away a smidgeon, but that’s what the hint of a new era will do to you.

Viva the Roy revolution. But let’s hope they get rid of those god-awful red shorts.

Read more from Bet.Unibet Editor Ben Cove HERE.