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U.S. negates England's midfield


RUSTENBURG, South Africa -- In many ways, England's draw against the U.S. was a tale of two goalkeepers: on the one hand Tim Howard, the man of the match, who made a number of decent if not spectacular saves; and on the other, Rob Green, whose gaffe five minutes before halftime gifted Clint Dempsey the equalizer. From Fabio Capello's point of view, Green provides a handy scapegoat, and will take some of the scrutiny away from a display that raised a host of tactical worries.

Green aside, Capello's big selection issue was who to field instead of Gareth Barry, whom he judged not yet fully fit after an ankle injury.

He opted for James Milner, but decided to play him on the left, with Steven Gerrard partnering Frank Lampard in the middle. That was the formulation that had begun the second half of the friendly against Mexico last month, after Milner had had an uneasy first half in the center. He looked no less uncomfortable on the left, unable to deal with the twin threat of Landon Donovan and Steve Cherundolo on the U.S.' right.

Milner was booked for his second ugly tackle and, as Capello said, he had to be withdrawn before he was sent off. Being generous, it may be that Milner was hampered by the virus that kept him out of training earlier in the week, and it was noticeable that within minutes of Shaun Wright-Phillips replacing him, Cherundolo had been booked for a foul on the winger as England regained a measure of control on that flank.

The Gerrard-Lampard axis in the middle of a four-man midfield never really convinces, because the two are too similar, both preferring to attack the opposition box than defend their own. That certainly wasn't England's biggest worry, but its inadequacy perhaps was a (minor) contributory factor in Dempsey's goal. Again and again when the two have played together, England have been vulnerable to players attacking the hole that tends to emerge in front of the back four when there is no natural holder, and although Gerrard almost got back to cover, it was from precisely that weak spot that Dempsey struck the decisive shot.

The bigger worry about the center, though, was that Gerrard and Lampard were never fully able to impose themselves on Michael Bradley, who had an excellent night, and Ricardo Clark. Gerrard and Lampard are the more talented, but that advantage was cancelled out by the USA's fight. Capello spoke afterwards of being delighted to see "the English spirit," but it's hard to know what he meant by that.

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This was, as it was always going to be, a dogged game between two athletic teams who operate in similar shapes.

And that, of course, is what makes Barry's injury such a frustration for England. If he were there, he could play alongside Lampard with Gerrard to the left, breaking the natural lines of 4-4-2 into something approximating to a 4-2-3-1. There is always a tendency with England for players to remain stolidly in position, but Gerrard on the left will always cut infield. That creates a vacuum that both encourages Wayne Rooney to pull left, and Ashley Cole to push forward from left back, and so England are almost kicked into movement despite themselves. Without that, they become very static.

Rooney also had a quiet night, which was partly down to the excellence of Oguchi Onyewu. When England's 4-2-3-1 was functioning at its best, about a year ago, Rooney was operating at Manchester United either as a second striker or as a wide player. More recently United have used him as an out-and-out striker, and he appeared to take that position conditioning into Saturday's game. In the first half, he played far higher up the field than he used to, so he was often up alongside Emile Heskey rather than playing off him. The result again was to make England more static; when they did get a player breaking form deep, as Gerrard ran on for Heskey to lay him in, England scored.

The U.S.' midfield takes credit that Gerrard and Lampard were unable to get forward more, but equally England could have made it harder for them by drawing Rooney deeper, so they either overmanned Bradley and Clark, or drew one of the two center backs out of position. In the second half, as he grew increasingly frustrated, Rooney did drop deeper, and was rather more effective, but he was hamstring by the fact that neither Aaron Lennon nor Shaun Wright-Phillips are natural finishers (or in Wright-Phillips's case, a natural crosser). Again, it was hard to avoid the thought that England missed Gerrard on the left.

The one clear chance that did fall England's way after halftime came to Heskey as Lennon slipped him through. Having the ball at his feet with just the goalkeeper to beat, though, is not Heskey's forte. He lurched on like a man dragging a heavy tyre round his waist and then, as though panic prevented him properly assessing his options, smacked his finish as hard as he could, straight at Howard. He will, doubtless, be mocked for that, but Heskey was probably England's most effective player, holding the ball up well and laying on the goal.

Jozy Altidore, of course, performs a similar role for the U.S., only with added pace, and the way he scorched past Jamie Carragher demonstrated just how short of pace England are in central defence in the absence of Rio Ferdinand. The Hull striker's partnership with Robbie Findley impressed, less in an aesthetic or clinical sense, than in its classical combination of pace and physicality. This is a front two, you suspect, designed almost as wrecking balls to create space from which the two wide players, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, can benefit.

Essentially, though, this was two 4-4-2s that largely cancelled each other out, and given Slovenia and Algeria both prefer that system, the group is likely to feature further attritional battles. England can change that but only if Barry is fit. To its great relief, he should be back for Friday's game against Algeria.