Brighter and braver.

At least there was a little spite: we need that.  Glenda may have accused England of being ‘too lacksadaisical’ – rightly – after 15 minutes but there had already been some sense that, yaknow, this was England v Scotland.  There was more panic than savagery but it felt relatively spicyRelatively.

Scotland started brighter and braver.  My guess is that this was partly because Strachan’s simply entered shit-or-bust mode – his attacking line-up being more about his own mania than genuine consideration of English defensive weakness.  The Pinks (say what?!?) were nevertheless appropriately pumped… and swift… and (almost) incisive.

England, though, looked weak in defence.  Stones again tried hard to stroll but merely gave his colleagues either palpitations, or shocking passes, during an early period of Scots dominance.  For someone so brilliant, he was bloody awful – but he did recover at least some of that Coolly Ambling Geezer thing.

The single moment of quality in a first half largely characterised by clumsiness, abstractedness and weirdly open spaces in central midfield was a stunning goal by Sturridge.  Sturridge who had looked likely to disappear in the frenetic mediocrity all around.

The Liverpool man seems not to be one either for The Battle or the kind of Route One (Aerial) Scene this fixture seemed to be building – or un-building towards. But when England finally shifted the ball with purpose wide to the right then in, he stooped to flash a thrilling header home.

Neither Sturridge nor Rooney made a single other contribution of any significance in the half:  Sterling was mixed and wasteful but he was present in a way most were not.  Could just be me but the sight of Rose throwing himself to the floor in the opposition box late in that first period summed up something unsatisfactory about the general fare.  It was competitive but often almost shockingly amorphous.  Other than that gem – the goal.

After the break Scotland ran rings around England before being cruelly stung by Lallana’s flicked header.  Brown, Snodgrass, Griffiths and the willing but limited Fletcher – I say that principally in relation to his almost complete lack of goal threat, which again was notable tonight – were bypassing or bustling around England… but to no effect.  There were periods (early in both halves) where, had Scotland scored, the evening could really have turned traumatic for Mr Southgate.  England really could have got beat tonight.

Miraculously, the Auld Enemy failed to convert half a dozen clear cut chances.  Most of these were more about lack of awareness than misplaced shooting boots.  The lurid pink shirts seemed mysteriously elusive when colleagues broke into Hart’s danger zone: incredibly, almost, nobody played anybody in.  Strachan must have tempted to bring himself on in search of a composed final pass.

When England went 2-up, they probably deserved to be 2-1 down.  When Cahill (who like his central partner Stones had been everything from scarily bad to inconsistent) notched the third with a simple header, the game was up, smothered – along with natural justice.  England had been powerfully unconvincing in defence, strangely dysfunctional, sometimes absent in midfield and sporadically deadly up top. All of Stones, Cahill, Henderson, Dier, Rooney, Sterling and Sturridge plainly underachieved, yet the scoreboard read 3-0.

Henderson and Dier are limited and one-paced players with the limited remit of the deep-lying midfielder to protect them.  Yet too often the porous centre of the England defence was exposed, suggesting they either have inadequate noses for danger or, perhaps, too many instructions jangling round their craniums.  Surely their prime motive as soon as the ball is lost should be to deny space?  Keep it simple, keep your shape?

Rooney was again ineffective for the most part.  This may have been because (for me) Sturridge makes too few darting or threatening runs, shows too infrequently, particularly when games are tight and physical.  (He wins relatively few high balls too, incidentally – again reducing the possibility for drama/momentum/sudden goal threat.)  If nothing’s happening in front of you, you (as a midfielder) tend to pass without meaning or penetration – sideways.

This does not entirely account for Rooney or Henderson or Dier’s ordinariness tonight.  They need surely to mix the tempo and commit to runs, to add value to the possession they inevitably have?  Lallana did this stuff better – but then again he can sprint, and seems to like to sprint forward into space to receive or invite the pass.

A note on Sterling.  He was almost embarrassingly, distractedly, greedily, boyishly poor in the second half.  So poor words must be said.  It might be that he is something of a vulnerable soul, so Southgate or his successor might need to exercise some skill and sensitivity when dealing with this talented young man.  Either that or tell him to pass the fucking thing.

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Playing Coach.

Man how we love to play coach. Pick the team, bawl at the profligacy of the centre-forward or the wastefulness of the ‘base of the diamond’. We love all that. We love being the bloke in charge – particularly when the bloke in charge ain’t making it happen.

It’s maybe an unattractive impulse. Expressing our pret-ty hypothetical superiority over the guy getting paid an enormous wedge to take all that pressure and guide all those juvenile show-pony people. Being brash and noisy about stuff we feel we know intimately but actually aren’t within a light year of; being The Boss at a mega-club.

Currently Manchester United FC (have you noticed?) are in what feels like a mess. Most extraordinarily, the manager – despite being an undoubtedly powerful personality and a legitimately major league coach – seems to have no control. Seems to have…

But hang on now. If you pause, take a deep breath and then consider the amount of media coverage and bar or living room banter about MU – say, last night and today – then maybe you/we might stifle our furies. Maybe we’ll reflect more maturely on a ‘hugely complicated situation’, with ‘untold numbers of mitigating factors conspiring against progress’. For four seconds. Then we’ll get frothing again and the ‘I CAN’T BE-LIEVE’S’ and the ‘IT’S JUST COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLES’ will start flooding violently out. Because that’s just what us fans do.

And that’s great. It’s (weirdly, perhaps?) one of the essential joys of the game. This idea that WE GET IT and sometimes those mega-folk, those plastic icons don’t. We know better than them and we could do better than them because we know what player X can do because it’s OBVIOUS, right? Obviously Jones shouldn’t be taking corners; obviously we should have bought more central defenders; obviously (now) Ferguson himself was worth 20 points a season – himself! All that stuff is the beery lifeblood of the game.

But back to now. MU are in the Top Four but seem unlikely to remain there, given that they are currently, in the round, pound-for-pound, behind Chelsea, City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and Southampton in terms of that phenomenon we might just call ‘playing standards.’

Swansea fans might reasonably argue that they have played more joined up footie than United this season but Stoke – nah – can’t. So maybe we could put United 7th in the table of righteousness. If we did isolate the defensive unit – why not? Everybody else has! – then we might concur with Stan Collymore that MUFC have about the 8th or 9th best defence in the league, even when at full strength. In short van Gaal has work to do.

Van Gaal does have work to do but what kind of work? Is it tinkering or is it still tectonic bloody shifting? Is this lumpen, faintly amateurish fug actually a way towards something? Is the mist gonna clear and HOW SOON? Will the advent of yet more players deliver us something kosher – something fabulous?

All these questions seem valid simply because the shapelessness of the present does imply lack of belief… generally.

Hard to intuit anything else but a fear that whatever van Gaal is selling to his players too many of them are either too poor, too dumb or too over-awed by the responsibilities of the shirt to buy in. Either that or the manager himself lacks the personal skills or the authority to shape the project. It’s both fascinating and deeply concerning for the fans.

Can van Gaal – a serial winner and seemingly impervious to chronic pressure – be falling short in terms of bundling or bullying or cuddling or managing his players towards a clear objective? (And by that I mean playing elite-level football, not the specific target of Champions League. A composed, confident and consistent side would walk into that category.) Whatever ‘state’ the club was in when he took over – and let’s face it there were problems but it was hardly Coventry City – shouldn’t things be better than this by now?

Of course they should. The manager like almost every player has underachieved. He’s put himself in a position where fans/pundits/commentators are entitled to ask whether he’s up to it. Is he up to transforming or re-energising individuals and/or galvanising the side – the team? It seems absurd that we should be asking such a question of such a gargantuan figure in the game.

But hey currently most would argue that there is little in the way of team shape – or more accurately that the side only plays sporadically in unconvincing flashes or spurts – that things don’t link. This may be combination of lack of understanding of roles – so tactical – but also a clear lack of belief. (Bringing us back to the gaffer, right?)

Belief may not be the same thing as confidence so let’s clarify; belief here might refer to comfort within the system, meaning understanding and ease with your role in the side. This surely then is both supportive of the whole – the team shape – and liberating for the individual. Players who believe can simply play; they’ll play without fear and with that wonderful instinct; they’ll express themselves confidently.

So how many Manchester United players currently are playing with this belief… and is this a reflection of failures in management as well as inadequacies in the player? ‘Course it is.

Good managers and coaches at every level set the tone; they make it oppressive or not, fun or not. I’ve said this many times but it is the role of the coach to facilitate the expression of talent. Not to say too much and complicate things; not to overload players with either information or pressure. To facilitate the expression of talent by knowing the individuals and therefore knowing what needs to be said… and how… to the individual… to the team.

Van Gaal may yet come through. It feels unlikely however that Smalling and Jones and Evans and Valencia and Fellaini… and maybe Falcao and Januzaj and Mata (even) will blossom under him. Because either they seem bereft of belief (and therefore error-prone, or debillitatingly short of composure) or they are out of favour. This is erm… half the team.

I repeat my previous claims that the sense that half the team seems to be wilting under the pressure of playing for their contract suggests chronic, what tend to be known these days as ‘systemic’ issues which do come back to the coach.

Specifically, what is his manner with individual players? Do they respect him? Is he a good bloke to be around and to have ‘on your side’? Or has he cut some of the players adrift – or is he in danger of doing so – or do some of them fear that? Does Mata, who has surely proved himself to be a genuinely top level player, wander on the fringes having become disillusioned? Does van Persie know he too must get fit and get mobile to earn a place? Is Rooney thinking ‘Jee-sus I need to get out of here? (Again.)

If it sounds that I’ve dropped into that negative spiral again I apologise. This is not what I want. I want beautiful, imaginative attacking football; I want Old Trafford to be a place for theatre and for the legitimate despatch of sporting opposition. I want Manchester United please.

Last night a good Arsenal side barely had to play to beat United at Old Trafford. There was little in the way of coherent football from van Gaal’s side again and they threw in errors left right and centre. Plus they brought an unacceptable level of shame on the club. There was a wanton-ness, a poor and cynical side to their play that spoke loudly of desperation and of lack of control. Van Gaal, as custodian of the club, needs to address that pret-ty sharply too.

More pressing than Preston.

Here’s the thing. The FA Cup is medium fabulous but what happens/happened tonight may be irrelevant. United are so-o twitchy and unsmooth, so wearing (or at least wearing the pressures of being United so poorly) that half the team or more are playing for their futures.

Superficially that sounds daft. Clearly at a club of this magnitude every player is playing for his place every week. There’s competition; there’s exposure; there’s that heady expectation – more here than almost anywhere in world football. So why bang on about ‘futures’ when this is the natural way of it at a monster club?

Firstly because this is the essence, the unruly gloop at the core of the van Gaal problem. It’s the dark treacle the players are wading through.

Secondly because we’re all of us trying to make sense of or identify the gaffer’s de-glooping plan. And this is troubling. It feels, for all van Gaal’s bluster and physical presence, like there is still no direction; or at least that progress has not been convincingly targeted. That – and the fact that this mirrors the Moyes era – is extraordinary, so deep into the natural transition period. The arrival of a bona fide top top manager should surely have extinguished any possibility for slippage aeons ago? Not so.

Falcao may be the obvious example of a player unable to shake the molasses from his boots but go through the list – mine or yours. Valencia/Rafael – both have threatened to burst clear and then either been too one-paced, shorn of confidence or too impetuous to gather form. Smalling/Jones have gallumped around unconvincingly; the latter even surreally masquerading as a dead-ball expert to escape from his prevailing plainness. McNair has simply been thrown in there too soon, following the calamitous failure to get stoppers of quality into the club; he’s therefore relatively blameless – if that can be said of a player who’s been groomed for this test for years. McNair could be a United defender in two or three years, perhaps; he ain’t one now.

Rojo and Shaw may be easing themselves through but in midfield the rotations – enforced and otherwise – have been as cloyingly obstructive as the individual performances. Di Maria is hardly beyond criticism but does narrowly exempt himself from that central question of his fitness for duty by being intermittently brilliant. He needs to do more than twinkle, mind, to justify the early clamour. Mata is a player alright but needs to be accommodated; his brilliant butterfly-in-search-of-nectar thing only works in a particular context. Likewise Januzaj, only more so. The young winger is far too fitful still and remains in danger of playing his way out of the club – sadly.

Blind and Herrera are closer to safety, despite the latter’s apparent low ranking with van Gaal. Most reds seem to be baffled the Spaniard hasn’t had more of a run in the side, rating his positivity, athleticism and goal-threat. Again the sense is that policy has wobbled as team form has failed to turn; the blend hasn’t either established itself or been driven hard or consistently enough by the coaching staff. We all know things get compromised but arguably playing philosophy can and should transcend fickleness/luck/injury. Van Gaal, despite the imperial pomp, has not dictated; players do not seem to be sufficiently steeped in belief or method.

We can scoot past the problems Fellaini has faced on the grounds that he’s patently in the unproven camp. Despite his presence (in every sense) as the Andy Carroll in Long Ball United’s Plan B, the gangly Belgian remains profoundly sellable.

The richest difficulties appear to concern Rooney and RVP. Wazza is probably United’s most complete striker but I am with van Gaal in thinking he should be playing deeper; he’s just ripe and ready for the Paul Scholes role, for me.

Rooney can pass, can read the play, can dominate possession; he thrives on involvement. There are times when his touch deserts him but it strikes me that this happens mostly when he’s drifting in and out of the game (i.e. when isolated, up front). In central midfield he might boss more games than almost any other player in the Premiership. True, he would get 20 plus goals no danger up top but somebody else can do that in a fluently-attacking side. He may really be uniquely kitted out for the schemer/gatherer/prober/piercer role that only the truly finest players can occupy. Given that my hunch is Scholesies are rarer even than top-notch strikers and given Rooney’s mature stage as a player, I reckon the skipper should drop into that pivotal position and stay there.

I say this fully aware of significant evidence to the contrary. I’ve noted (well, bawled, actually) about Rooney’s utter failure at that highest level of international tournament play. Those repeated but still weirdly inexplicable crashes during the majors. How then can we view him as godlike midfield strutter of uberstuff? Instinct. It might take a few months but I simply think Rooney could make that role his own.

Central midfield is the perfect place from which to command the side.  He’s the right age. He can be everything from quarterback to edge-of-the-box executioner. Though there are whispers that United may buy big again to fill this void, I’m thinking it may be easier and better to buy another striker and get Rooney in there.

Van Persie is wrapped up in this. Clearly a magnificent footballer when fit, he’s too easy to mark and too sedentary when shy of that lean, reactive peak. Is it a heresy to say that this season should be his last at the club? Go buy Ings or somebody? Somebody who can race and head and finish… then release Rooney into midfield.

These are big calls but the situation is crying out for dynamic change – for a change of era. What’s fascinating is that you would imagine that van Gaal is beautifully equipped to bundle dismissively through ‘difficulties’ of this order, proclaim the new gospel, brook no challenge. That we haven’t seen. I can’t see that as anything other than a disappointment.

So the FA Cup is a wonderful distraction. If it serves to energise the side then great. If Preston are thumped or bypassed or whatever and in a month or two Wemberley calls… magic. A proper day out and a proper trophy would help any group gather. But that single (hypothetical) triumph may not be enough to mop up the treacle.

Player ratings;

De Gea – untroubled really. But should have stopped that goal. 6.

Valencia – poor. Slow. Casual. 4.

Rojo – like his toughness, may yet come through well. 6.

Smalling – okay and no more. 6.

Shaw – like his willingness to advance.  Will soon be worthy of the shirt. 6.

Di Maria – fabulous drive but woefully unproductive way too often. 5.

Blind – looks a footballer. Looks like he can consistently do what footballers do. 7.

Herrera – consistently ordinary – extraordinary given the imperative to make a statement. 5.

Rooney – strangely disengaged. 5.

Fellaini – ditto Herrera only worse, arguably because he didn’t even physically or aerially dominate. 5.

Falcao – in a poor team he was strikingly anonymous. May be the end – would have no complaints. 4.

 

The Gaffer – needs to read my blog and probably employ me pronto. 3.

Young – came on and made a difference. 7.

Fabulous and flawed.

A pro-logue.

I’m kinda down on footie despite being totally steeped in it. All that ‘drawing’ pens, all that desperate trying to get fellow pro’s sent off stuff.  But the word fabulous appears here, more than once.  Fabulous meaning really really great; beyond wonderful and into super-charged dream-particle magical. I re-found something and I’m thinking it was the number 9’s fault.  That Colombian bloke – Falcao.  The way he fizzed about like a kid; throwing his soul and self into it; as though (like we did) it was done for love of the game and maybe for his mates – that daft, open, sacrificial thing. Beyond money, fame, pressure. The fans loved him for it – not just the brilliance of his assist for Rooney’s tap-in – they loved his heart.

United are in a fabulous place. Fabulous in the sense that after a Moyesian extension of the previous regime – i.e. a period when (even under King Aloysius) they remained essentially fascinatingly dire and unworthy – there is suddenly the possibility for a magnificently wild chariot ride with van Gaal at the helm. If they have remained only 84% convincing going forward – whole lot less, defensively – this has not prevented United from threatening to break into that ‘cutting a swathe through the division’ category. At times, via Di Maria/Rooney/Young, even, The Reds have waved a sword – twirled it! – as they have bulleted triumphantly along. Except…

Except for that gert big hole where the Manchester United defence should be. Okaaay partly through ill-luck on the injury front but also because players selected have been visibly short of the confidence/courage/ability (you choose!) to carry that particular responsibility. The thing has felt flung together because van Gaal, plainly exasperated that a club of this stature should have such a shortage of options, has rifled through the personnel and the strategic possibilities.

I liked his early recourse to a back three but then cursed his immediate ditching of the system. Accepted, this was more about a damning of the dimness and immaturity of allegedly top top players than LVG’s personal preference but reverting to ‘the more familiar’ (yawn!) 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 smacked of capitulation. Why not stick with that defensive three (and with effectively five in midfield) then bully your side into a coiled-spring ‘wingback’ option? That plainly offers the potential for five fit blokes covering defensive duties once possession is lost. Meaning as a mob, perhaps especially a Proper Defender-lite mob, you give yourself every chance to keep the other buggers out.

Look you don’t have to be Jonathan Wilson to be aware that variations on 3-5-2 have informed the thinking of great European sides for aeons. German and Dutch national sides have made a habit of coolly out-passing opponents by having players available out wide and/or through slick interchange in a fluid, well-stacked midfield. Characteristically these teams have exuded confidence on the ball, being populated by players who receive the ball beautifully and use it with intelligence. Van Gaal will surely look to build towards this at United, whilst adding in pace – zip – in the belief that the Premier League might undermine or undo the cruise mode that seems to prevail in ‘continental’ football.

This is all context that LVG will be aware of – and I think hopefully thrive in. The notion that Manchester United FC has a genuinely noble tradition for attacking with width and pace, blah di blah. You can picture and maybe The Enemy is beginning to fear(?) a seamless transition between the mighty aggression-driven era of Ferguson through to some invincible, van Gaal-reflecting pomp. (The seamless thing has been manifestly blown but both eras laced and lit by gallivanting wide-men, with perhaps the midfield generals of the former nuanced into serene, more cosmopolitan sorts under the current gaffer? Perhaps.) Either way United have finished up with 3-5-2 formation, temporarily or otherwise, they are on a roll…and Liverpoool are out of sight.

Most agree that it’s taken the re-emergence of Michael Carrick as a force for calm and a rare exponent of the insightful or threaded pass from deep, to gift United back their shape, if not their formation. Whether he remains in a classic central defending role or a deep-lying midfield position is as yet unknowable – possibly even to the manager. (Today, Carrick strolled in the midfield.) What is clear – and to this, I for one, sing alleluyah – is that elite level footballers should be able to a) read play and b) execute passes on the understanding that possession is god. Carrick exemplifies these skills. And we did need reminding, we always do.

So, in the now, encouragingly, thrillingly for their support, United find themselves back where they belong. Champions League football seems downright certain for next season – an extraordinary transformation from but a few weeks ago – and there is just a crazy, glorious hint of a chance that they might buy two defenders next month and then go wallop everybody on the way to a sensational title triumph. A ludicrous, lew-dee-cruss thought in say, September.

And so to the game. United set up as follows, against Pardew’s Newcastle;
De Gea
Jones McNair Evans
Valencia Mata Carrick Rooney Young
Falcao RVP

Early minutes. Van Gaal has clearly insisted on the back three splitting as soon as United gain possession, with Jones going wide right and Evans left; meaning McNair is potentially isolated in fifty yards of the pitch if things break down. Carrick will monitor in front but there’s too much reliance on possession being retained – and this is not the way of it. On the plus side, with the back three spread, ‘play’ should be enabled by the drawing out, into space, of these individuals and the simultaneous emergence of space for midfielders to exploit. On the negative, right across the back line, there is no cover.

This is all very well if you are a) German/Dutch b) dominant or c) three goals to the good. It’s massively bold given United’s current vulnerabilities as a team – and McNair’s youth and frail confidence. The lad’s already been withdrawn early after one nightmare; after five or ten minutes this afternoon with Newcastle looking lively, the fear is very much that van Gaal is gambling unwisely against a repetition.

But give the man some credit; if van Gaal is saying to his players ‘we will open out and we will be full of movement. We will penetrate and we will score because we have quality’ then… wow. He will know the nature of the game he is playing. Maybe we are seeing an expression of the manager’s belief in his strike power more than something ‘inevitably’ cavalier, borne of an awareness that his side simply cannot, home or away, park the bus.

Anyway first fifteen Newcastle – who look buoyant – have significant opportunities. United are on that knife-edge again, with the back three looking boyishly lost. Evans looks a liability both in and out of possession; Jones and McNair take sharp breaths and try to see it through. They do – somehow – then United respond, dynamically, Rooney scoring twice before the half to transform the match. Young and Valencia rampage intermittently, they win three-nil.

But the watching world knows and will re-visit the fact that van Gaal’s boys might have conceded three before Rooney put them ahead. And that another penno decision went their way. If I tweeted in the twentieth minute that The Geordies ‘might have already have buried them’ imagine the copious notes taken up and down the land?

… Maybe this is important. United might well achieve an easy third place in a poor ‘chasing’ group, light years behind City and Chelsea. On the one hand this might represent a solid, arguably spectacular achievement. On the other, it will not sit well with van Gaal that his side would even theoretically lie so open to dismemberment by Mourinho’s or Pellegrini’s patently more complete outfits. United aren’t there yet.

And yet I return to my original theme. Supporters excited and a charge ongoing; things twitching between joy and reality. The fans in love with Falcao’s gameness – gutted to see him withdrawn – and yet aware of that bigger picture, flicking through the gaffer’s mind. There is, there really is a season to gamble for, a title to chase. And realistic or not, United or not, that’s fabulous.

Estonia.

So a swift verdict.

(Mid-evening last night, I’m thinking) this is not a night to have a right old go at Hodgson, Rooney or anyone else. Things – black and white things like tables and like plans – are ‘on track’. Mind you, I hope Roy did have a go at his players after a performance we’d all surely plonk confidently in the medium lame category.

One-nil against a poor team playing with a man short for half an hour or so? Hardly inspiring but that’s how it was. Save a thought for Roy’s White Army trudging back to trains planes and automobiles, or hopefully friendly bars, feeling they needed a bloody sharp glass of Estonian hooch to reboot slightly dulled and yes, disappointed minds. You’d need some top quality banter or booze or camaraderie – remember that? – to haul back this particular adventure from the brink of the flattish.

But look results just don’t always tell the story, right? A reasonable judgement – remember that! – might be that England weren’t actually poor (being too generally comfortable on the ball now) but the result is. Relatively. They ‘failed to execute’, there was a general lack of a gear-change about the performance – in part I would argue due to selection – but also because Wellbeck in particular rarely sprinted to any purpose. England were kinda sluggish yet largely competent… except when within thirty yards of the Estonian net.

One or two things do concern me, however; let’s start with Lallana.

The word itself smacks of slightly exotic fluency and this is what us purists hope the Liverpool man may deliver, smoothing the pathway forward from that old angular, muscle-bound past into a slick, balletic future.

But because he’s never going to dominate proceedings (‘cos of that cool, minimal-contact, slinky-intelligence thing he’s got goin’ on) Lallana must influence by either linking to effect, or providing assists. And he needs to do that especially against poor teams who need opening up. Failed tonight. He has to take his opportunities because he is more droppable than somebody less gifted (Henderson/Delph?) because of this non-combative essence. In tonight’s game Lallana wasn’t the chief disappointment but he may need to start scoring or threading dream passes pretty urgently.

Wellbeck had a poor game, I thought. In the context of that opposition, think about it. It felt another example of how players just fail to sense when their moment is come. If the universe hasn’t spoken loudly enough to Danny, let me, on all of our behalves, re-iterate. NOW IS THE TIME for you to chase down your destiny – or at least chase round the park. Chase! Sprint and pressure without the ball and sprint and offer and give and spin and strike with all your might when you have it. Go right past urgent into ABSO-LUTELY ON FIRE; because when you’re at full throttle (by that I mean really racing down the inside/outside channels or attacking the ball in the box) you’re actually fairly tasty. Go do that.

Wellbeck surely must have been told to turn and get them legs a-pumpin’? Drive at people rather than simply jog through the game, back to goal. Estonia would surely be somewhere between static and clueless? Like Rooney though, his touch was often too sloppy to achieve the ‘I could play fer Barca, no probs’ level he no doubt (we no doubt) dream(s) of. Consequently instead of scaring the life out of very ordinary defenders, he pootled, he under-achieved – significantly.

Let me stick with this for one more moment. To say that yes I know I’m on the one hand suggesting Ingerland play more like Germany (say) and on the other I’m bawling at the centre-forward to leg it round the place. Well yes… and no…

A) Wellbeck is a particular case because he can hurt the opposition with his sprinting power and he under-uses that strength. B) We are of course aiming to be both comfortable and composed in possession AND rip-roaringly dynamic around their box. C) I do slightly fear that even our leading players are so busy projecting a Messi/Iniesta/Muller into their own footballing presence that they almost forget to be themselves and play. D) We aren’t good enough to merely cruise and ‘be patient’. In no way do I single out Wellbeck for some spurious blame here; it’s just his lack of awareness re this urgency that seemed comment-worthy.

Rooney was allegedly ‘involved in everything’ and yet for much of the time he was dispiritingly awful. In cruise mode, like Wellbeck, only marginally sloppier. Clunky touches and ill-judged passes; ordinary finishing. Even his goal was from such a conservatively struck free-kick that a genuine international keeper might have kept it out. (I thought Rooney’s muted celebration suggested that – as though in mild surprise and embarrassment that a strike so gently and obviously coaxed towards that post should beat the goalie’s belatedly grasping palms). Quite rightly, moments before, Hodgson had his skipper lined up for the hoik: following the goal, he stayed.

Elsewhere England did their jobs/saw out the game. Wilshere was perhaps most notable; he flashed in a few choice passes and he did try to vary things. Importantly, he wanted the ball. The feeling remains, however, that his singular lack of pace and a certain lack of immediacy must be compensated for elsewhere. England had the game sewn up from start to finish but (no-brainer) one goal is never enough. There was an absence of threat – even against ten – and this needs looking at. Was the blend wrong or did players simply not perform?

Brief word on today’s Sterling story – that he pulled out ‘tired’.  If the manager has put this into the public arena in order to keep the squeeze on his players – i.e. demand complete commitment to the cause – then fair enough.  I’m no loony patriot but important to keep egos and apathy in check.  Also fair enough to drop him to the bench.  Plainly Sterling’s form is way down on last year and tiredness – mental, particularly? – is likely a factor.  No need to be punishing anyone here… but a marker laid down, in my view and a warning that urgency and passion should be non-negotiables.

Finally I offer some ratings… because other folks are… and it gives us all something to argue about.

Hart – 6. Another night where judgements are ludicrous; had nothing meaningful to do. His distribution was slightly mixed but this may be partly down to a lack of dynamic movement in front of him.

Chambers – 6. Offered himself and did okay but no better. Untested due to lack of a threat from the opposition but if I was pushed I would say not ready for major internationals yet.

Cahill – 7. Almost uniformly composed and rightly happy to mix it (within reason) when his oppo’ barged and banged. Limited distribution and under-achieves in terms of goals scored from dead-ball situations but if he stops their attackers attacking fair enough. He cruised through this… in a good way.

Jagielka – 6. Almost completely surplus, in a sense, such was the lack of penetration from Estonia. Honest, relatively aware,solid enough. In his comfort zone but who wouldn’t be, playing against no-one.

Baines – 6. Again another night when you expect him to have a whole lot of fun raiding down the left… passes by. A waste but impossible to know how much of this is down to the player’s ongoing slump and how much to calls from the bench to be ‘responsible’.

Wilshere – 7. Possibly England’s best player. Liked the variety/want more care and yes, more urgency. He’s good enough to treasure the ball and hurt teams with it.

Delph – 5. Disappointing. Can hardly remember a telling contribution. Subbed.

Henderson – 6. Decent night but no better than that. Couldn’t find a killer pass/didn’t always strike the easy ones well.

Lallana – 6. Can’t afford many performances where critics or fans can use words like ‘wafted’ or ‘barely affected’. He must know things conspire against anybody (from Hoddle forwards) who can be dropped into the ‘luxury player’ category.

Rooney – 6. Busy-ish but unconvincing; sluggish. Missed guilt-edged chances/was wasteful too often with possession. Hope Hodgson is telling him his place is not guaranteed. Even if it is.

Wellbeck – 6. Snuffed out his own after-burners.

United in their clunkiness.

Those with even the faintest notion of what’s going on in the world of football will know that the ‘relationship’ between Liverpool FC and Manchester United is spicy. In fact it ain’t spicy – or certainly not in any sense aromatically attractive – it stinks; it’s an all hummin’, gut-churnin’ clusterbomb of a thing, particularly off the park. Impossible (probably) to judge whether it’s the foulest rivalry of them all but there is an unseemly kind of hatred there that even mature and otherwise intellectually-viable human specimens seem to get caught up in.

Whilst this phenomena is historically and sociologically interesting I urge that we do get past it, erm… chaps and settle for the standard, or ideally elite-level exchange of witticisms common between opposing fans the globe over. Banter. Good-natured piss-taking or street-step, up-to-the-mike dissin’ of them Manc lot fer thur shockun defence or vice-versa/whatever. Let’s face it currently both sides have plenty of scope for abusing t’other.

Right now I imagine fans from Southampton to Sunderland are taking a certain rare pleasure in the sight of Liverpool FC and Manchester United FC – traditionally the swaggeriest of the swaggerers? – holding hands and walking rather shamefacedly into the Duffer’s Disco. Both are pitifully dad-dancing, or at least only fitfully finding the groove, being united in their clunkiness. Why is that?

Liverpool fans may be secretly the more concerned of the two ailing or failing dance-troupes. Because last year their side was so revelatory… and then came up short when it seemed like ultimate and redemptive glory beckoned. Scousers will be aware of and hurt by the accusations that pressure got to Liverpool when (as United fans gleefully point out) for the first time for aeons they were right in the mix at the back end of the season. It may be stretching it to think that Gerrard’s slip and those alarming capitulations were all down to pressure but something did happen to cruelly unravel a brilliant season. Now the feeling – the fear – will be growing in Liverpool that last year was The One… and it did get away.

Following a genuinely poor start Rodgers suddenly has his work cut out. Sure there have been changes but he would be wise not to make too much of the ‘disruption’ caused by the departure of Suarez and injuries to Sturridge. Liverpool FC are competing now in the big league in terms of transfers and bulking up their squad; so no excuses. Their failure smacks of lack of confidence and drive as well as due to individual issues with personnel. In other words it’s beyond excusing. Ar Brendan has to get topside of the group before (say) Balotelli’s propensity to sulk and undermine eats away further at the previously resurgent fabric of the club.

The Mario gamble I had no problem with. In fact, because I rate him highly, I thought Rodgers might conjure the best from Balotelli. This is still possible of course but that immediate prospect of the love-him/hate-him Italian enigma scorching into cult status having scored a bagful of screamers fades with each slightly dispiriting performance. The Kop needs something to shout about and Rodgers needs to provide.

Thirty miles east and the story runs parallel. Except that last season United were awful not brilliant. And van Gaal has had no lead-in time. But again because of the resources of the club excuses will not be tolerated. Real fans – of which there are, contrary to folklore, plenty – will give the man a little time because plainly there were cavernous holes in the squad but (again) things must simply be sorted.

The Red Devils cash having been splashed extravagantly, MU’s pre-season friendlies were quietly encouraging. Then the paucity of the United defence and the relative frailty of their confidence was utterly exposed in the physical and psychological crash-bang-wallop of real matches. Like Liverpool – only more so – they had no core, no solidity. The extraordinary inability to foresee and then cover the loss of Vidic and Ferdinand – both in decline for eighteen months – proved costly as occasionally sparkling forward play was made irrelevant by inadequate defending.

It may be true that there appears to be a world shortage of central defenders but for Manchester United to continue to line up with two or even three covering players demonstrably short of MU quality is either calamitous or remarkable depending on your allegiance or otherwise to the club. Either way it is an indictment of the shambolic transfer policy at Old Trafford. Incidentally the fact that van Gaal had to summarily abandon his plans to install a back three because the players were simply unable to cope with it speaks volumes on the issue of how truly premier our Premiership stars are, does it not? As with Ingerland FC, the rank inflexibility – the unskilledness? – of Jones/Smalling and co disappointed but surely did not entirely surprise?

The signing of Di Maria has been the chink of light. He looks United alright. Rapid and in the dubious modern phrase – penetrative. Falcao (in the traditional phrase) may need a goal but can clearly play heads-up footie of a high level; the attacking ‘problem’ for van Gaal (as for Hodgson?) seems to be settling on a role for Rooney… and van Persie. Shoe-horning all four of these mega-players into the same line-up may be unwise, may be impossible. Helpful of Rooney to get himself banned then.

There are arguably more problems of team shape for United than over at Anfield. There’s still, in short, a hole where the central defensive axis should be; a hole that spreads forward alarmingly into midfield when teams really get at them. They have players in there but no enforcer, leaving them vulnerable when the opposition squares up and fights.

What the clubs share – fascinatingly – is palpably thin confidence; susceptibility to pressure. This weekend Liverpool have what would appear a straightforward home game to West Brom. United meanwhile face them other scousers – Everton – in their first tough fixture of the season. How will they be if things go against them?

Managers earn their money in moments like these. Rodgers must bully or ingratiate his way in to a group that suddenly looks and feels exposed. Van Gaal has always known he was making a new beginning. Choose your words carefully, gentlemen.

Immediate reaction? This is a crisis.

Unwise and unnecessary to be too gentle on the lads, just because of their alleged general impressionable yoofness. Don’t forget these people are massively over-remunerated athletes who live in a competitive environment but cannot seem to accept that challenge. Not when it gets big on them.

I’m not typically a hard-hearted sort but it feels like they’ve scudded beyond the range of our sympathy and even if some of them are decent enough blokes they’ve been so Sunday-League hapless we’re entitled to unsheathe the knives.

Lots of what we have seen from England was barely international standard; there may be cultural reasons for that or structural reasons or sociological but that’s where we’re at. I rate the main protagonists (ha! Like they affected anything!) here; the view being of the tournament rather just tonight’s dismal showing. I think I may have been generous.

Hart 5 – unconvincing. Probably our best but this again reflects very low standards elsewhere.

Johnson 5 – ordinary and rarely exposed entirely – which was something of a pleasant surprise.

Cahill 4 – ordinary and occasionally totally duff. Distribution often woeful.

Jagielka 4 – ordinary and rarely looked comfortable. Is actually quickish and reasonably dynamic if poor on the ball. Not here (except the poor on the ball bit). Nerves or just found out?

Baines 5 – offered a glimpse for about fifteen minutes against Uruguay. Otherwise a pale shadow.

Sterling 6 – nearly fabulous against Italy. The one player who can be reasonably satisfied with what he offered. He lifted us but then was garbage against Uruguay, mysteriously.

Gerrard 5 – a significant disappointment again. Could certainly play on in that Liverpool role – deep-lying, strolling about. Hope he doesn’t.

Henderson 5 – okaaaayish because we don’t expect fireworks… but (doing the easy job, remember) barely made any impact.

Rooney 5 – not a total embarrassment. Just ordinary but missed key chances.

Barkley – huge distance away from fulfilling Golden Boy status. Genuinely hope he gets there but this was not the start he would have wanted. Even given that his brief is a high-risk zone, he was disturbingly wasteful.

Lallana 5 – needed to show us something – that fluency, that movement, that composure. Didn’t, really.

Wilshere 4 – may have been unlucky with injuries but may have been lucky to get a further opportunity; which he manifestly didn’t take. We thought he may be the answer 3 years ago; his cuteness and skills seemed set to bring in some new, cultured, contemporary age. May be now that his chance has gone.

Wellbeck 4 – poor and probably the closest to full-on embarrassing at times.

Sturridge 5 – good against Italy. Disappeared, pretty much, against Uruguay, diabolical against Costa Rica.

Conclusions?

Need a book or at least another blog but clearly the manager was neither motivational nor tactically bright enough. But the players can’t hide behind that. They appeared marginally less petrified than in South Africa, marginally less rooted but still that central soul-crushingly painful fear of the natural gamble ate away. Only Sterling flew, looking and no doubt feeling in his element. And then he – the real Raheem – was gone again, against Uruguay.

So how do we get players – even ordinary players – to (in that famous phrase) express themselves?

Firstly you choose a superb manager; an inspirational sort, ideally. Then that manager chooses a dynamic blend of characters for his squad. Guys who will turn up, more often than not, when those big questions are asked. (If we again have to stick the label Mentally Strong on this then so be it). Then you work with them and sort a team pattern. If players are not up to being flexible or are not pretty damn comfortable in international fixtures – specifically, if they don’t look comfortable on the ball – you get shot of them. That ease over the pig’s bladder in Munich or Rio or Belfast is a NON-NEGOTIABLE. Wherever they play, positionally. Plainly we still lack that.

Sure there are questions about training methods and percentages of foreign players and all that but dumb maths says we should have enough bodies to gather a competitive international side. (If, for example, Uruguay can.)

I’m not going anywhere near those arguments right now. I’m just going to say that against ordinary opposition we looked (can I use the word literally, please, please?) Hopeless. And therefore I revert to the word crisis; in the knowledge that we have some young talent but a whole load of work to do. If Jones and Smalling (for example) are the future then yeh – a whole load of work.