England avoid slip-up against Switzerland as Welbeck scores brace

Few, it’s fair to say, expected that. England have had a miserable year, going out of the World Cup in record time and slipping to twentieth in the world rankings, but they overcame their nerves to win what should be their hardest game in qualifying for Euro 2016 qualifying with a coherent performance that hinted at better things to come.

After the drab 1-0 win over Norway in a friendly last week, manager Roy Hodgson had said that in Switzerland "England could be Norway," which was generally taken as meaning he would adopt a conservative 4-4-2 looking to frustrate Switzerland, the highest-ranked side in the group, suffocating their raft of skillful attacking players with two banks of four. Instead, Hodgson opted for a midfield diamond, with Jack Wilshere at the base, Fabian Delph to the left, Jordan Henderson to the right and Raheem Sterling at the tip, behind Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck.

The fear must have been that Switzerland’s two attacking full-backs Stephane Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodriguez would wreak havoc in the space in front of them, but they were subdued – in part thanks to the way Rooney and Welbeck pulled wide – in a generally flat Swiss performance.  Switzerland, surely, will recover to qualify for the Euros, but this was a deeply disappointing start to Vladimir Petkovic’s time as coach, both in terms of result and performance.

Hodgson, perhaps, had expected his side to be counter-attacking, absorbing pressure and looking to spring forward through the pace of Welbeck and Sterling. As it was, Switzerland themselves seemed content to sit back before opening up 10 minutes after half-time – which, of course, was when England took the lead.

Haris Seferovic had just had a shot superbly tipped over by Hart and Switzerland was just beginning to mount some concerted pressure when pressure from Welbeck led to Gokhan Inler losing possession on halfway. Rooney broke and laid the ball outside him to Sterling who crossed low for Welbeck to turn in. He might have been slightly fortuitous in that the ball went in off his shin, but England had wasted sufficient opportunities legitimately to say they deserved to be in front. The second, in injury-time, similar came on the break, Sterling at the root of it, Rickie Lambert delaying his pass perfectly and Welbeck finishing calmly.

It had been Welbeck’s pace and movement that led to the first clear chance, after 29 minutes, as he stole behind Steve von Bergen broken down the right and then slightly misplaced his cut-back for what would have been a tap in for Sterling. Sterling too was a threat, his pace causing problems for Inler and Valon Behrami despite the fact he was often operating in a crowded area. He too misplaced a pass having got a run at the back four, the ball bobbling its way to Rooney who wasn’t able to get the crispness of contact he required. Phil Jones also went close in a first half in which England had more shots on target than they had managed in their last two matches put together. His fine header from a Rooney header, though, was saved low by Yann Sommer.

MOVERS AND SHAKERS

The midfield was a mixed success. Delph, having initially seemed skittish, lunging into two challenges in the first 10 minutes to be booked, was tidy in possession, but Wilshere’s inexperience in the anchor role was clear. He rarely dropped between the center-backs but, understandably reluctant to advance too far, he was perhaps a touch over-disciplined, so that England often didn’t have an angle to pass the ball out from the back. That in turn meant Sterling often dropping deep, reducing his effectiveness as a creative force and again reducing England’s verticality.

At the same time, the nervousness in England, especially at the back, was palpable. A touch of anxiety perhaps lay behind the misplaced Welbeck pass, and it surely lay behind Rooney’s decision not to strike a neat first-time diagonal ball on the volley, instead trying to bring the ball down and miscontrolling badly. When, early in the second half, Sterling swung and missed at a low Jordan Henderson cross, the ball hitting Behrami’s shins and cannoning just wide, it began to seem as though the goal would never come: and that, of course, is an perennial issue for sides lacking confidence: clarity of thought and deftness of touch disappears at key moments.

Equally, there was an uncertainty between Baines and Jones, and it was through that channel that Xherdan Shaqiri released Haris Seferovic after 34 minutes, only for Joe Hart to save with his legs. Yet even after going behind, Switzerland never really mounted the sort of pressure that might have been expected. When Seferovic created an opportunity for Josip Drnic after 70 minutes, it came from nothing – and the substitute was offside as he rounded Hart, only for Gary Cahill to make a superb recovery block.

Switzerland’s frustration was manifested a handful of wild challenges, one of which, by Johann Djourou on Delph, might have won England a penalty. Perspective is necessary: this was competent rather than brilliant, and there was a pervading sense of unease, but this was a fine result for England, the one real potential banana skin on the road from France 2016 evaded.