[UNDER THE MICROSCOPE] Oguchi Onyewu didn't show any signs of nervousness in his first World Cup match, despite facing England as well as one of the world’s top forwards, Wayne Rooney, and his burly partner, Emile Heskey.
Just 20 seconds after the opening kickoff, he played a left-footed ball along the ground upfield to Jozy Altidore, whose attempt to nick it on to Robbie Findley narrowly failed to connect. Onyewu did bang a ball upfield later in the half right to Heskey but it pinged right back for him to clear. His touches were usually safe and simple, and he moved constantly to offer options to his teammates when the Americans brought the ball out of the back.
Most of the time, Heskey drifted in and out of Onyewu’s area, that of the left central portion in the U.S. back line. Occasionally, especially in the first half, Heskey’s movement drew out Onyewu far enough that England exploited the gap.
While Rooney played off Heskey for much of the game, hoping for knockdowns and short passes and second balls, England directed much of its attack at Onyewu. Numerous balls, even goal kicks and free kicks from keeper Robert Green, were driven to Heskey, who seldom escaped Onyewu’s tight marking sufficiently to get a strong, clean jump at the ball.
Of his physical, mano-a-mano duels with Heskey and Rooney, Onyewu won the vast majority. He chased down a ball with Rooney on his heels late in the match, when Onyewu’s fitness might have been flagging. Instead, a few of his teammates blew harder and deeper late in the game as Onyewu finished strong; in the final minutes, he won a few aerial duels with 6-foot-7 striker Peter Crouch, who had replaced Heskey.
England scored in the fourth minute when Onyewu and central defensive partner Jay DeMerit switched assignments on Heskey and Rooney for a throw-in. Onyewu stepped to Rooney, who let the ball run inside to Heskey. Despite DeMerit’s tight marking, Heskey clipped a diagonal ball right into the space vacated by Onyewu. Steven Gerrard raced to the ball and with Ricardo Clark a step behind, smacked a shot past Tim Howard.
On two occasions in the first half, space opened up on the flank when Heskey drew Onyewu. In the 25th minute, Heskey drifted into the middle and when Onyewu followed, Aaron Lennon darted into the gap as Carlos Bocanegra and Clint Dempsey converged to scrape the ball away in a good moment of team defending.
Near the end of half, Heskey slid out wide, and opened a space for Lennon to wriggle through and hit a low shot Howard got down to smother. Lennon and right back Glen Johnson caused the U.S. a few problems when the Americans didn't react to their interplay on the flank.
Another chance arose in the second half when Onyewu stepped up to intercept a ball intended for Heskey and chested it right to Lennon, who immediately played it behind Onyewu for Heskey to dribble at Howard. The U.S. keeper stood his ground and took Heskey’s hard shot right in the stomach as DeMerit slid over at the last second to apply some pressure.
Onyewu had timed his interception well, but his poor execution gave England an excellent chance. On this and a few other occasions, such as the England goal, the U.S. defensive shape and communication were poor. A bad offside call deprived England of an attack when the flag went up on Rooney; replays clearly indicated he was not closer to the goal than the last defender, Onyewu.
The good news is he didn’t show any physical problems, and with some more work with his teammates in training, should be more in sync when they face Slovenia Friday.
At times in the second half, if Heskey drifted too far from goal, Onyewu held his spot in the back line and let a teammate duel with Heskey for high balls. He came up with some important plays, including a recovery block at the near post of a low ball driven toward Frank Lampard after Onyewu’s attempted tackle had bounced off Rooney. He also took up good positions several times to head away crosses at the near post when not man-marking.
On set plays, Onyewu was rarely a target, though he did out-fight John Terry for a well-flighted ball from Landon Donovan to head wide of the post from about 12 yards out. He might have been lucky not to be cautioned in the second half; he crunched both Rooney and Heskey from behind, and rather callously tripped Rooney in midfield with about seven minutes left in regulation.
With a full, demanding match against a good team tucked away, Onyewu should be strong and sharp for the next two group games, assuming he recovers normally. DeMerit and right back Steve Cherundolo were cautioned and will be suspended if they pick up another yellow in the group stage, so Onyewu may be asked to provide some cover if they must play a bit more cautiously.