Following their exit during the summer, we wrote about the reaction to England’s World Cup campaign. Since then we have been treated to the usual page fillers (apparently Roy Hodgson’s biggest problem is the lack of goalkeeper talent – thanks for that Martin Samuel), and the press doing their utmost to discredit any England player daring to sip a bottle of beer and/or taking a holiday. Hopefully the “lack of passion” reason for failure was blown out of the water following Brazil’s rousing passionate semi-final rendition of their national anthem followed a complete footballing lesson by the Germans. Trying to be a little more constructive, and following the first England squad of the new season, we have taken a detailed look at England’s three World Cup matches from a tactical point of view, to discover the areas where the Three Lions need to improve going forward towards Euro 2016.
Going into the tournament, England’s formation and choice of personnel was reasonably settled. A 4-2-3-1 formation was Roy Hodgson’s preference, and the first choice XI with one or two question marks pretty much picked itself, as per the illustration (provided by the excellent TacticalPad.com) below.
The only question marks in terms of starting line up involved the three players behind Daniel Sturridge in attack, with several players capable of playing the No.10 role, and also offering different strengths in the wider roles…Raheem Sterling – pace, Danny Welbeck – positioning and tactical sense, Adam Lallana – two good feet and useful cutting inside, James Milner – better defensively, Wayne Rooney – ultimately the team’s leading man.
With Sterling’s excellent end of season form for Liverpool, including playing centrally behind the front two, it was him that got the nod to play in the no.10 role in the opening game against Italy, with Rooney moving across to the left, and Welbeck on the right. Sterling is also capable of carrying out defensive responsibilities, and one of the worries for England going into the game was how to deal with Pirlo, who was likely to be in a deep midfield role, and who had dictated the game when the sides met in Euro 2012. As it was, Pirlo generally played further up the pitch with Daniele De Rossi playing in front of the back four.
In any case, England’s defensive approach was far more “screening” rather than pressing, allowing Pirlo plenty of time to pick his passes. England did do a good job of preventing him putting balls over the top to Balotelli, unfortunately they did less of a good job in stopping Italy in wide areas, particularly down their left, Italy’s right. From the first minute, Chiellini on the left and Darmian on the right were looking to burst forward, with Leighton Baines left with a 2 v 1 situation as early as two minutes in.
Wayne Rooney is not known for his tactical discipline, and there was much criticism of Rooney’s defensive play in the Italy game, but England’s defence was not helped by the two defensive midfield players, the captain Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson. Neither are natural defensive midfielders – Gerrard has moved back in the last couple of seasons for Liverpool, whereas Henderson has generally played further forward in energetic, shuttling roles. The gap between the pair and the back four was regularly too big, a great example being the first goal where Italy made use of the gap and made progress down the right, forcing a corner from which ultimately they took the lead. A great comparison is with the positioning of their counterpart, De Rossi in the same game, protecting the Italian back four superbly. It helps that De Rossi is as comfortable at centre back – you could not see either Gerrard or Henderson dropping in there in an emergency for England.
In the second half, Rooney and his Manchester United team mate, Danny Welbeck swapped positions, hoping that the youngster’s better defensive play would stop the Italian’s progress down the right. In truth, he fared little better, and as early as four minutes into the half, Welbeck neither pressed nor provided cover leaving Baines exposed, and then the under pressure Everton man defended poorly, allowing Candreva to cross for Balotelli to score the winner.
It is however the case that Italy’s strength was also their weakness, as England’s goal, showcasing their strength and pace on the break, came from Darmian being caught forward and Rooney taking advantage of the space left to receive Sterling’s excellent pass and cross for Sturridge to finish. However it was noticeable how rarely Rooney made space on the left, as he tended to drift inwards to a more central area, which meant on occasions, the attack lacked width. Later on in the game, England’s full backs pushed further forward, perhaps inevitably as they were chasing the game, so Rooney’s lack of width was less of a problem. By then however, Italy had shut up shop and England really lacked ideas.
There was some hope for England in the shape of Uruguay’s unexpected defeat to the supposed weakest team in the group, Costa Rica. This left the game between the two defeated teams as not necessarily a must win, but definitely a must not lose. Generally, the defeat to Italy had left the English quite optimistic due to the positive nature of their performance, however the display by Wayne Rooney did cause many to question his suitability to the role on the left, so for this next game he was restored to the number 10 role with Raheem Sterling shifting over to the right.
Despite a general lack of enthusiasm from the English media over their performances against Italy, both Rooney and the captain, Steven Gerrard were given special attention by Uruguay, seeing the senior members of the team as the ones to keep quiet. Edinson Cavani dropped deep on to Gerrard whenever England were in possession, meaning that defensively Uruguay were really a 4-5-1. This gave Gerrard’s team mate Henderson plenty of space which he didn’t really exploit. Meanwhile Rooney had the Arevalo Rios in close attendance for much of the game, and it took a while for Rooney to realise that movement out of the central areas would cause the Uruguayans problems elsewhere as Rios would follow. Without Rooney’s movement, England lacked width in the early stages with on one occasion, Rooney and Welbeck making the same run in the inside left position.
Nevertheless, every football team needs an element of luck to go their way to achieve success, the England definitely did not get theirs in the competition. It’s fair to say that many referees would have dismissed the Uruguyan captain Diego Godin for his second transgression just before the half hour mark. That would have left Uruguay with the inexperienced Jose Gimenez in the centre and created more space.
Elsewhere, despite England generally being on top, their defence was looking nervy, in particular Phil Jagielka, and he was part of a fairly average defensive effort on Uruguay’s first goal, although that should not take away the credit from some excellent play by Lodeiro to win possession from England in midfield, then a fine cross by Cavani, finished by an excellent header from Luiz Suarez. However England had given away possession cheaply in midfield, then failed to win the ball back quickly. Glen Johnson had cover behind him when closing Cavani so could have got tighter and prevented the cross. Cahill was too close to Johnson leaving Jagielka covering Suarez. And the Everton man dropped out of line with his team mates and allowed Suarez to peel off the back to meet the cross. Leighton Baines had been caught upfield and was not able to cover round.
England started the second half very nervously and were lucky not to fall further behind. Suarez had already sent out a warning with an early corner that left Hart scrambling to save at his near post, but incredibly the same thing happened again during this early spell – it was very odd set piece defending. Gradually however, England regained control and played more positively, with both full backs pushing forward. The crossing however was fairly mixed; Baines produced a couple of excellent crosses early on, but as well as some poor deliveries, England did not help themselves by often failing to get bodies into the penalty area – on one occasion both Rooney and Sturridge dropped off rather than looking to hit the area between the back line and the goalkeeper. Rooney did have two excellent chances when he did make the move into the box, bringing an excellent stop from Muslera on the first occasion, and finally meeting Johnson’s tackle cum cross to equalise. Rooney’s sharp burst to meet the ball is quite noticeable…there were too many other occasions where this didn’t happen. The goal also came from some sharp and quick passing from Sturridge, Henderson and Johnson which made Uruguay look ponderous, and England looked the more likely team to go on and win.
England’s game management however was not particularly good, and it was exemplified by their captain, who on occasions while trying to lead the team instead tries to do everything and ends up causing problems. When Uruguay pushed forward, there was a lack of calmness in and around the England penalty area – hurried clearances and players contesting the same ball. Then of course there was the Uruguay winner – a simple high clearance from Muslera could and should have been dealt with, but not for the first time in the game, Jagielka failed to command leaving Gerrard to contest a header with Cavani, and it was the former’s header that put his then Liverpool team mate Suarez in the clear to finish ruthlessly. Inevitably, the only way for England to get back into the game was to revert to type, with Lambert brought on and a lot of hurried and bad decision making while desperately trying to force an equaliser – Uruguay dealt with everything with ease.
The result, followed by Costa Rica’s defeat of Italy the following day left England out of the competition, but did allow Roy Hodgson to get full use out of his squad in the final game against the likely group winners. Only third choice goalkeeper Fraser Forster and the injured Alex Oxlade Chamberlain failed to get any match time, although Rickie Lambert can probably count himself a bit unfortunate to get no more than a few minutes at the end of the Uruguay match. England appeared to line up in the same 4-2-3-1 formation, although whether planned or not, Jack Wilshere played much further forward than captain Frank Lampard, often looking to press the Costa Ricans but often alone. In reality, England’s formation was 4-1-4-1.
Again, England lacked width in attacking areas, often relying on the full backs to push forward. Lallana in particular squeezed in next to Wilshere and behind Barkley who was playing in the no. 10 role. Luke Shaw showed a willingness to get forward, however Phil Jones on the other flank looked uncomfortable playing the attacking full back role. There is a lot of hope for Jones in the future, but he needs some solid performances for his club side and to settle into a regular role, whether that be at centre back or in a deep lying midfield role. While Gary Cahill kept his place at the back, Jagielka was replaced by Chris Smalling, however his performance can perhaps best be summed up by Andy Townsend, commentating for ITV and remarking that Smalling’s game was about defending and not trying to play the ball out. Unfortunately in the modern game, as a centre back you need to be able to play out, and Smalling certainly struggled with this, particularly when using his weaker left foot.
Costa Rica having already qualified, played without a great deal of ambition, and like many of the other performances were well drilled at the back keeping a very tight line. England’s lack of width and creativity did little to break them down, and on occasions when they did get behind, once again poor crossing and lack of urgency to burst into the box let them down. And late in the first half, England’s nervous defending nearly proved costly when a huge gap between the back four and the midfield, followed by a misjudgement by Phil Jones nearly let Costa Rica in.
In the second half England upped the pace and certainly caused their opponents more problems. Again though, some bad decision making and lack of urgency to get on the end of crosses let them down. England had several set pieces late on, but the deliveries were poor and there was a general lack of imagination. Maybe something different such as Rickie Lambert might have caused Costa Rica some more problems, however the final two substitutes introduced were Gerrard and Rooney.
So where do England go from here? With Euro 2016 qualification already upon us, Roy Hodgson undoubtedly has some problems to solve. We’ve picked out a few key issues and hopefully some possible solutions.
Sort out the defensive midfield role
While we were putting together this piece, both the England captain Steven Gerrard and the experience Frank Lampard have retired from international football, so England have not only lost two of their potential defensive midfielders but also much experience. As mentioned earlier, Jordan Henderson does not look comfortable in the more defensive role, and Jack Wilshere seems keen to play further forward also. Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, injured for the entire tournament, has shown potential to play in a deeper role, and here’s a thought – James Milner apparently sees his future in such a role also. We’ve also seen Phil Jones play there but surely his future, should he have a better season with Manchester United, is in the centre of the back four. His team mate Michael Carrick needs a better season also, and of the players who have represented their country already, he is probably the best fit for the role. Less fancied but worth considering include Tom Huddlestone at Hull who had a decent season last year, or a return to the likes of Gareth Barry, with the memory of Bloemfontein still causing a shudder.
Roy Hodgson’s first squad brought some new names into the fold, for example Newcastle’s Jack Colback, who has started the season at his new club as part of a defensive two, and has also appeared in defence for former club Sunderland. Fabian Delph is the other new midfielder who tends to make his moves from deep, and so makes a more obvious case for being one of the two, should the manager stick with the same formation.
Outside of the current group, there are younger and less experienced players. In the under 21s, where England’s players in waiting should really be coming from, the leading candidate for the role would appear to be Chelsea’s Nathaniel Chalobah, who as per our earlier definition, can play as either a centre half or a defensive midfielder. Like many youngsters however, what is lacking from Chalobah’s CV is experience, with his last two seasons, admittedly while still a teenager, in the Championship with Watford, Nottingham Forest and Middlesborough. Crying out for a loan move to a Premier League club, fortunately Burnley made the call on transfer deadline day, so one can hope Chalobah develops into the type of defensive midfielder England need.
To press or not to press?
While much has been made in recent times of the passing ability of the top sides in the world, the likes of Spain (pre this World Cup of course) etc… what should also be remembered is the way they win the ball back, with a very strong pressing game. Germany also pressed well in their destruction of Brazil, and we have seen their successful league teams operate in a similar way. England don’t appear keen to play in this way – in general during the World Cup they were happy to stand off and try and use their pace on the counter attack. This is fine with the pace they have in the side – the likes of Rooney, Sturridge and Sterling can certainly be explosive, but to operate a good counter attacking game, the team also needs to be very solid defensively, to enable the confidence to allow teams to attack you, and to be very ruthless on the break. Liverpool showed last season the ruthless streak, but in the end their defence was not good enough to make them totally successful. Chelsea were solid defensively but not ruthless enough in attack (although early signs this season suggest that’s a problem that’s been rectified). England in the World Cup looked suspect defensively, with a shaky back four and a defensive shield with players not comfortable in the role. The Premier League, where most of the England squad ply their trade is renown for high energy play, and the World Cup squad included several players whose club teams play a pressing game, so why does the national team not play the same way? And if the defence is a worry, far better to press and stop the danger further up the pitch.
Set pieces – a traditional area of strength
Though English tactics in the past have been derided for being direct and lacking technical flair, the set piece has traditionally been an area of strength, so why not use this to our advantage if we are struggling in other areas? However England’s lack of invention and poor set piece delivery during the competition was baffling, particularly with players like Baines and Gerrard who regularly deliver fine crosses at club level. And if the ball into the box isn’t working, how about trying something a little bit different…remember the lovely move from the US in their game against Belgium.
What do you think? Where do you think the key tactical areas are for England to work on to improve themselves going forward and make them a force in world football?