The Match: Pearce’s England succumb to the magic of Arjen Robben

England are not in disarray as they head into the lead-up to the 2018 World Cup, but it would be hard to make the point that Gareth Southgate’s side is in good shape either.

As the Three Lions gear up for the final months of preparation for this summer’s showcase in Russia, there are no shortage of pressing issues.

Is Southgate the right man for the job? What is England’s style of play? Three at the back or four? Who should play in goal?

What about in central defence? At left-back? In central midfield? Who should be captain? What happens if Harry Kane gets injured? What if Boris Johnson pulls us out of the tournament all-together?

With all of this coming on the back of the Euro 2016 debacle against Iceland and Sam Allardyce’s botched job of succeeding Roy Hodgson, it is difficult to imagine that England have been worse prepared for a major tournament in recent memory. But they were, ahead of Euro 2012.

Just four months out from the tournament in Ukraine and Poland, Fabio Capello had resigned over the FA’s decision to strip John Terry of the captaincy but still allow him to play for his country ahead of his court case for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand, the brother of his central defensive partner, Rio.

Harry Redknapp, all set to guide Spurs into the top four, looked nailed on to become the new Three Lions manager.

Yet, Capello resigned in early February and by the time England hosted the Netherlands at the end of the month, the delay over appointing the Tottenham boss had many fans worrying that it wasn’t going to happen at all.

The lack of a new man in charge led Stuart Pearce, at that stage Under-21 manager, to take the hotseat for the visit of the Dutch. Just like this Friday’s friendly, it was meant to be the start of the serious preparations for the summer’s tournament but everything was up in the air.

England were managerless, their centre-halves were embroiled in a bitter scandal, they had no captain and talisman Wayne Rooney was to be suspended for the first two games of the tournament.

Even Pearce himself knew he wasn’t a long-term option but the likelihood of the former Manchester City boss guiding England into battle against France, Sweden and Ukraine in June was growing with every day that passed without Redknapp’s appointment being announced.

Steven Gerrard was again overlooked for the role of captain as the armband was handed to Tottenham’s Scott Parker for the night.

Anyone bemoaning England’s current options should look at some of the names in Pearce’s squad; Micah Richards, Adam Johnson, Frazier Campbell and Stewart Downing all featured against the Dutch.

The match itself saw Holland dominant throughout, as you might expect. The Dutch were the beaten World Cup finalists in 2010 and their solid yet technical 4-2-3-1 reflected the footballing landscape at the time.

And they had Arjen Robben. After a goalless first half in which Gerrard limped off injured, the Bayern wideman proved head and shoulders above anyone else on the pitch within two minutes of the second.

An England move broke down and Nigel de Jong fed the winger in the Dutch half, just behind the centre circle. From there on, not one Englishman could get near the flier and he fired past Joe Hart, at this stage England’s undisputed number one.

Seconds later, the game looked over when Dirk Kuyt crossed for Klass Jan Huntelaar to make it two and England had shown little sign that they would be able to get back into the game. They were being kept at arm’s length by Holland’s ability to stroke the ball around and Robben was scaring the life out of the home back-line.

Yet, almost unbelieveably, inspired by the pace of Ashley Young and Chelsea forward Daniel Sturridge out wide, England clawed themselves level late on.

Goals from Young and Gary Cahill, just months before he became a Champions League winner, made it 2-2 and for a brief period it looked as if Pearce may well get an opportunity to be the top man after all. It was a stirring comeback and Wembley was delirious.

But Robben had other ideas. He produced a breathtaking late strike, only needing half a yard of space to whip the ball from right to left and to make it clear just how far off the pace England really were.

Their substandard squad was in disarray and without direction. The excitement in the stands dissipated, although it was replaced by relief in some parts that Pearce was again an unfeasible appointment.

So, matter how many headaches Southgate has six years on, he would do well to remember that it could be a whole lot worse. And yet, England made the quarter-finals of Euro 2012, under Hodgson, appointed little over a month before the tournament began.

Given that most Three Lions fans would take a spot in the last eight in Russia if they were asked now, it is worth bearing in mind that shambolic preparations need not be an insurmountable barrier to a creditable tournament performance.

But taking Frazier Campbell would have been.

Article title: The Match: Pearce’s England succumb to the magic of Arjen Robben

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