England bogged down in Warsaw
Good things are supposed to come to those who wait. Not for England, however. Delayed for a day by a downpour, the best that could be said for their performance in Poland is that they didn't lose. The outcome was rather better, extending their unbeaten record under Roy Hodgson, penalty shootouts excluded, and meaning they top World Cup qualifying Group H.
But that is less impressive than it sounds. This was a missed opportunity to assume control of the pool. Instead, they repeated their results in September's double header, beating a minnow 5-0 before being held by a superior side. It is a form of consistency and as efficiency tends to be the prime requirement of a qualifying campaign, could mean that Brazil beckons. But if excellence is the objective, then England failed. "We can play better," Steven Gerrard said. They have to hope so.
Because, while it is often said it takes teams time to get going in a game, England never found their rhythm in a match that concluded 22 hours after its scheduled start. Industry, organisation and spirit, those traditional English strengths, sufficed. Ball retention, that traditional English weakness, was a predictable problem.
Even the often meticulous Michael Carrick was careless in possession. As the game progressed, some concentrated on hammering clearances, rather than measuring passes. The exception was England's outstanding player. On his 99th cap, Gerrard was purposeful and authoritative. As in Euro 2012, too few others matched the standards he set. One of the major culprits was his deputy and England's goalscorer. The Liverpudlian axis of Gerrard and Wayne Rooney has been disconnected for much of the past two years by injury and suspension. Reunited, they brought the breakthrough when Gerrard's corner was shouldered, rather than headed, in by Rooney.
There are times when Rooney has put the vice into vice-captain and not enough when he has indicated he deserved a promotion from the ranks. Over the last three years, he has provided too few performances and too few goals; now celebrated thrice in the space of two games, rather more emphatically against San Marino but rather more importantly in Poland. Yet if a criticism of Rooney at club level last season was that he was productive without playing well, it was certainly true on this occasion.
And set-pieces were first England's salvation and then their downfall. Kamil Glik levelled when Joe Hart came for, and missed, Ludovic Obraniak's corner. "It was my fault," the goalkeeper later said. "I should have punched it or stayed in my goal." The admission of responsibility was welcome but it capped an error-riddled defensive display. Glen Johnson was twice their rescuer, but his powers of recovery were only required because the centre-backs made mistakes. Robert Lewandowski, Kamil Grosicki and the raiding right-back Lukasz Piszczek troubled the left half of the defence, Joleon Lescott and Ashley Cole.
As Poland took the initiative, England floundered. Rooney was withdrawn: first into an outnumbered midfield and then altogether, replaced by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. James Milner, the resident workhorse, had to chug across heavy ground on the sodden pitch. Tom Cleverley clearly commands Hodgson's confidence but the manager appears unsure where to deploy the midfielder: he occupied three different roles in the space of 90 minutes and has played in four positions in the last three games.
As England were put under pressure, individual failings were more apparent. Jermain Defoe is ill-equipped to be the sole striker and, deprived of a target in attack, the ball kept coming back at them until Danny Welbeck came on for the Tottenham forward. In a midfield with Milner, Carrick and Cleverley, there is too great an onus on Gerrard to supply the killer pass. In a back four now without John Terry, the old habit of dropping deeper continued. It need not anymore, but this was an England display with unwanted echoes of the past.
The broader difficulties are partly tactical - Hodgson's approach was too familiar from the summer, less 4-2-3-1 than 4-4-1-1 and too rigid - and partly philosophical. A Spanish ethos of perpetual passing cannot be implemented overnight, especially given the ever-present temptation to lump it long, which rendered the manager's analysis rather bizarre. "It was a soggy pitch that was more suited to a long-ball game than a passing game," Hodgson said, implying England's tiki-taka was stymied by sogginess, rather than sloppiness.
Coupled with September's draw against Ukraine, it suggests England's progress to Brazil, should they get there, will be a slog, not the cruise they may have hoped for. Nevertheless, by avoiding defeat they made it a profitable, if elongated, trip to Poland. "A decent point," said Gerrard. And so it will probably prove.