England managed three more shots on target against Switzerland than they mustered at home to the Norwegians on Wednesday, and with it the curse has been lifted.
Manager Roy Hodgson brought a new dimension to his reputation as a man of letters in his colourful defence of his players following the turgid 1-0 victory last week at Wembley, but there was little need if ever there was one for any such impassioned rebuke following last night’s 2-0 defeat of Switzerland in Basle.
The win will breed continuity and stability – defeat may have brought an abrupt and premature end to Hodgson’s reign. A campaign that will already be hard to sell tickets for would’ve been doubly as difficult had the FA stuck with the former Liverpool manager after an uninspiring surrender in Switzerland.
But the players gave a performance every bit as passionate as the one given by Hodgson in defence of them and the ease at which the top seeds in each group can progress to France 2016 through UEFA’s new qualifying structure means there will be very little over the best part of the next two years for us to gauge whether these players are capable of leading England to success in a major tournament.
Last night, there were some hairy moments which may well have altered the complexion of the match – Phil Jones’ defensive lapse wasn’t capitalized on by Haris Seferovic and Gary Cahill’s goal-line clearance denied Josep Drmic – but England themselves were guilty of missed opportunities as Jones guided a free header too close to Yann Sommer and Danny Welbeck’s cut-back eluded Raheem Sterling.
The new diamond formation, with Jack Wilshere at the base and Sterling sparkling at the tip, was kept throughout and there were encouraging performances in challenging circumstances for Fabian Delph and John Stones gaining their first full international caps in a competitive fixture.
Hodgson was rewarded for his attacking formation, when the option of deploying James Milner or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in more defensive capacity may well have been afforded to him ahead of an away fixture against the side ranked ninth in the FIFA world rankings.
Instead, England played expansive football, with Welbeck having the pace and dynamism of a forward not restricted to operating between the lines of the penalty box. His surges into the channels allowed for greater interchange between himself, Sterling and Wayne Rooney, whose hard work helped mastermind his former teammate’s opening goal.
Arsene Wenger will have been encouraged by Welbeck’s brace, with the confidence of a man embarking on a new journey at club level resonating from the moment he turned Steve von Bergen on the halfway line and surged into the Swiss box after half an hour.
His selfless cutback flummoxed Sterling but he didn’t dwell on the chance spurned, and it was his persistence that earned him the slight good fortune of scoring the game’s opener via his shin.
This was far from being a polished performance but it was also far-removed from the abject turmoil those ever-so loyal England fans had to witness in Manaus, Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte as their World Cup dreams were dashed in nine insupportable June days.
There was a balance of youth of experience which may have been disturbed had Ross Barkley been fit or Milner cast as the elder statesman marshaling the midfield – Wilshere was played in an unfamiliar quarter-back role, with the exuberant Delph at 24 clearly keen to make up for lost time with a pair of early rash challenges which earned the Villa man a caution.
The understanding between Sterling and Jordan Henderson forged at club level with Liverpool showed the rare signs of developing on the international stage, which bodes well for Daniel Sturridge when he returns to the side against journeymen from Lithuania, Estonia and San Marino in the coming months.
Throwing Stones and Jones, whose departure with a slight hamstring scare with 15 minutes remaining was the one blot in Hodgson’s evening of note-taking, into games against the minnows of European football would’ve taught us very little about their potential to handle players of international substance.
While it was Leighton Baines who brilliantly shackled Switzerland’s most potent threat Xherdan Shaqiri, this was most certainly a team effort that overcame the toughest assignment Group E will possess.