England put in a fine performance against Denmark as the Three Lions won their first game of 2011.
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Goals from Aston Villa duo Darren Bent and Ashley Young rounded off an encouraging England performance as Fabio Capello’s side comfortably beat Denmark 2-1.
An early goal from Daniel Agger could have shaken England but they quickly replied and defeated Denmark as they prepare for the next rounds of EURO 2012 qualifiers.
The pre-match build-up had mainly consisted of the resurfacing of the club vs. country debate, given that the friendly comes just a week before the first knockout round of the Champions League and therefore being labelled ‘pointless’.
This, though, was England’s first game, and therefore Capello’s first chance to get the players together, for almost four months and, as England had hardly impressed post-World Cup, this game gave Capello the chance to try and form his best starting eleven with the players available.
Jack Wilshere made his first start for his country and lined up alongside Frank Lampard in central-midfield; a partnership that, whilst very attractive going forward, ultimately left the back-line vulnerable as there was no-one in midfield to cover or track back. As early as the second minute, Denmark broke through the England defence with great ease, Nicklas Bendtner getting in-between Ashley Cole and John Terry, only to be ruled offside.
It was a young Danish star, though, who impressed most on the night. Ajax youngster Christian Eriksen was handed his eleventh cap and given the freedom of midfield in the first half, again because England were lacking in a defensive-minded midfielder. Eriksen’s delivery of the ball was particularly impressive and, in the seventh minute, it was a perfect cross from the 18-year-old that resulted in the Danes taking an early lead. Liverpool defender Daniel Agger was given far too much room inside the England penalty area and, with goalkeeper Joe Hart exposed, the centre-back headed home with great ease.
England needed a quick response and, within two minutes, they had one. Darren Bent, on his eighth appearance for his country, was gifted a goal from a yard out after brilliant work from Theo Walcott inside the penalty area. The young Arsenal winger turned Simon Poulsen inside-out before placing a superb ball onto the toe of Villa striker Darren Bent, who played in a more advanced role to the deep-lying Wayne Rooney, which effectively meant at times that Bent was a lone-striker with two wingers (Milner and Walcott) bombing on either side of him.
In the first half, England used the wings to their advantage. The pace of Walcott and final ball of Milner, as well as the ability of both to swap flanks, gave the Denmark full-backs plenty to think about. The attacking tenacity of both Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole also helped Capello’s side to attack at speed whenever possible.
One of the main reasons that England haven’t performed well at the top stage is that they haven’t got a good, ball-playing midfielder. It’s been a long time since England had a player who actually wanted the ball; actually liked to kick a football and to keep a football. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard may be powerful and dangerous going forward but they can’t sit in midfield and spray balls out to the wings, which is exactly what England needed in the first half given their set-up. Jack Wilshere, then, is exactly what England need. With Rooney still misfiring and Lampard largely ineffective, Wilshere was key in midfield for England. His distribution of the ball was superb all night and, although he didn’t do anything spectacular, the fact that Wilshere looked so comfortable at the heart the England team is remarkable when you consider that the 19-year-old was making just his first start.
The partnership with Lampard, though, maybe needs a little work. As Denmark played a lone-striker in the form of Nicklas Bendtner, the runs of Michael Krohn-Dehli, Eriksen and Rommedahl were all penetrating the England defence far too easily, slipping in through the gaps between full-back and centre-back. England don’t particularly need a holding midfielder as such (at least, not against an average front-line that Denmark boasted) but they do need to work out a way to have two central midfielders who can both attack and defend, either at the same time or through the understanding of one-another, which will of course come in time for whoever eventually partners Wilshere in the long-term.
The two, slightly flat central-midfielders worked for England, nevertheless, at least in an attacking sense. Going forward, England looked fluid, natural and seemed to actually be enjoying their football and, while there was nothing extravagant about their play, the cohesion between the attacking force of England was certainly more encouraging than any performance in the last five months. For once, England were actually playing an attractive passing game and, just after the half-hour mark, this nearly came to fruition, with Rooney and Wilshere combining well outside the box only for the Arsenal midfielder to slightly over-hit the pass to Bent who was ready to pounce inside the area. The signs, though, were certainly there.
As good as England looked going forward, their defensive line was still being beaten with far too much simplicity. Again the tormentor was Eriksen as he crashed a shot against Joe Hart’s left-hand post from 20 yards after clever build-up from the Danes. England didn’t take notice of the warning signs and, within a couple of minutes, Hart was called upon to produce a fine save from a Rommedahl effort after he had again slipped past the England defence and shot from a tight angle.
The game was end-to-end and, with five minutes to go before half-time, England seemed to have taken the lead, Lampard ingeniously flicking home after more great work from Walcott, who not only scared the Danish defence throughout the first half but also sent brilliant balls into the box time and time again. Lampard, though, was correctly ruled to be offside and was denied a goal on his 84th England appearance, in which he was made captain with Rio Ferdinand and Gerrard out.
Even so, Denmark still came forward and, in first half stoppage time, Agger again threatened in the air from a deep Eriksen free kick, with the ball just out of reach for Agger, but again the marking was poor.
At half-time, Capello decided to make some changes and, after an impressive debut (in which he completed 27 out of 29 passes), Wilshere was brought off, as were the largely ineffective Lampard and Rooney as Scott Parker and Ashley Young came on. While this did mean that the English defence was more protected, their play was now more centralised than before, with Young playing off Bent as he has done at Villa frequently this season, which meant that Walcott and Milner, who were probably the biggest threats to the Danes in the first half, saw very little of the ball.
The impact of Young, though, was almost immediate. The pace and quality of the Villa midfielder posed a completely different threat to the Danish back-line and, within five minutes of coming on, he linked up with Bent to nearly give England the lead. A clever flick from Young found the head of his club teammate and, had Thomas Sorensen not been so quick off his line, Bent’s header would have given England the lead. And just a minute later, Young himself almost put England in front with a glancing header from a Milner cross, although Sorensen was equal to it all the way.
England were edging ever-nearer to taking the lead against Morten Olsen’s side, with Young firing wide from thirty yards and Bent hitting wide from inside the penalty area, but it took until the sixty-eighth minute for the goal to actually come. Johnson, who had a nervous first half and made a few clumsy mistakes, showed great eagerness as Krohn-Dehli lingered on the ball. A simple pass inside to Young gave the 25-year-old the opportunity to coolly slot home from just inside the area.
With England in complete control the game seemed to lose it’s energy, although a late burst from Stewart Downing, who replaced Walcott just after the hour, down the right wing should have resulted in a better final ball from the Villa man, but Denmark eventually cleared.
While England were certainly made to work for the win, and were beaten far too easily by the likes of Eriksen and Rommedahl, it didn’t really feel like they hit top gear. Even though a 2-1 away win against a side ranked 27th in the world (21 places below England) isn’t massively impressive, the actual performance itself is definitely encouraging and, with players like Wilshere, Young and Walcott all seemingly coming good, dare we say that England’s future is actually quite bright?
Denmark 1 – 2 England
Agger 7 Bent 9