There was a sigh of relief around Wembley. Steven Gerrard surged forward and fortuitously skipped past Kamil Glik, clipping the ball over Wojciech Szczesny to double England’s lead – securing a spot in next year’s World Cup. It wasn’t easy, but Roy Hodgson did it. The Three Lions will return to the ‘world’s biggest stage’, this time with less expectation, but some optimism based on Hodgson’s bold moves over the past four days.
However, while the old guard – Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard – will receive the headlines for netting the goals, the men that received the opportunity to impress didn’t look back. It must be said that Poland started the match well – in terms of pressing – and Hodgson’s men struggled to stamp their authority on the match. Adrian Mierzejewski pressed Michael Carrick, limiting his influence – and when Gerrard dropped deeper into midfield, Robert Lewandowski helped his Polish teammate close the English captain down.
Nonetheless, Mierzejewski also posed an attacking threat, as he constantly got behind the English double pivot, spreading incisive passes in the final third. Meanwhile, Poland also tormented Hodgson’s men when they swiftly broke on the counter after English set pieces – going from box to box – but Lewandowski squandered two legitimate goal-scoring opportunities.
Andros Townsend and Leighton Baines continue to make legitimate stakes for a starting spot – based on impressive outing – but neither Poland nor Montenegro intended on dictating the match, which benefitted the duo. That’s not saying that neither can solidify a spot in the starting lineup, but will Hodgson trust the latter when England encounter elite opposition?
Nevertheless, it was Carrick who starred in the heart of midfield against Poland. His three tackles – only bettered by Phil Jagielka – and 94% pass completion was exceptional. Once the Polish players tired and their press diminished, Carrick became the key figure in Hodgson’s side. His inch perfect passes found Wayne Rooney, and Daniel Sturridge lurking between the lines, while his ability to retain possession is a feat no current English midfielder possesses.
And, it was Carrick’s one-time pass to the advancing Leighton Baines that led to England’s opener. The Everton fullback delivered an exceptional cross – one that Ashley Cole would value – to Rooney, who rose above the Polish defenders and nodded the ball past Szczesny.
England’s attacking quartet continues to take a step in the right direction – Rooney’s movement around the final third and midfield displayed his maturity as an international player, while Townsend’s unpredictable direct approach troubled the Polish backline. Also, Welbeck and Sturridge’s movement into central areas and their intricate play in the final third have been positive, as they continue to improve as international players, albeit there poor form in front of goal.
Nevertheless, the main man is Carrick. Unlike Frank Lampard, Jack Wilshere and Gerrard, the Manchester United midfielder provides astute defensive cover, and has the ability to anchor England’s midfield with his precise penetrating passes. Carrick isn’t getting younger, but in an area where Hodgson is currently lacking star performers, the 31-year-old is the present and future of England’s midfield.