Tactical analysis of England’s system

May 25, 2010

With just a couple of weeks until the World Cup begins, this was a game posing more questions than offering solutions for Fabio Capello. Whilst England recorded a 3-1 win, they were outplayed and outpassed by a technically superior Mexico side for large parts of the game.

Few individual performances stood out for England – Glen Johnson was awarded the man-of-the-match award, presumably solely for goal, but this was one of his weaker displays; he looked very uncomfortable up against Mexico’s extremely high winger, and contributed little in attack. That he was England’s best player sums up what a poor show it was.

Capello was expected to try a different shape for this game, with a possible 3-5-2 system rumoured last week, followed by suggestions he could play two out-and-out wingers either side of Wayne Rooney. In the end, Capello went with the modified 4-4-2 he played throughout qualification, which was a little disappointing for those who wanted to see him try something different, but gave us a chance to analyse this shape in detail, and it remains the system England will most likely play against the USA in their opening World Cup game.

First, we should make clear that there were notable absences from this game. The players who contested last week’s FA Cup Final were not considered; John Terry, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard would surely all have started tonight’s game. Gareth Barry, too, is absent through injury, though with him battling to be fit for the World Cup, it was an opportunity to test out alternative midfield options, so James Milner and Michael Carrick dovetailed in midfield.

The basic formation

Hopefully the basic 4-4-2 shape should become clear above. When Rooney drops off, it becomes a 4-4-1-1, when the wide players push on, it becomes a 4-2-3-1. But the basic starting shape is a 4-4-2.

The modifications to the system basically start with Steven Gerrard (marked in pink). England have notoriously not had a decent left-winger for decades, and Gerrard fills this role by playing very narrow, always looking to come inside and link with Wayne Rooney. His narrow position means that Leighton Baines (marked in green; to be replaced by Ashley Cole for the World Cup) has license to get forward on the overlap, and the fact that Gerrard has drawn his marker inside has opened up a lot of space for Baines to exploit here – he has a 15-20 yard band of space all to himself on the left.

On the opposite flank, the situation is rather different. Theo Walcott (marked in yellow; vying with Aaron Lennon for the right-wing position) keeps his width at all times, hugging the touchline and stretching the play. He is rarely involved in the build-up play other than from long diagonal balls to him, and the basic idea is to isolate the full-back, and get England’s right-winger running against him at pace. Walcott’s wide role means there is relatively little space to be exploited by Glen Johnson, the right-back (marked in blue), and here he remains more level with his centre-backs than Baines does. The defensive nature of Johnson’s role is probably partly why Jamie Carragher appears to be his natural replacement, rather than a more typically rampaging right-back.

In midfield, Michael Carrick and James Milner (marked in red) play as a traditional partnership in a 4-4-2. Neither had the holding role, neither had more license to attack, although Carrick’s natural tendencies means he dropped deep to receive the ball from the centre-backs more often.

Upfront, Peter Crouch and Wayne Rooney do not have ‘fixed’ positions to one side. When England don’t have the ball, Rooney tends to drop to the left, but when they do, Crouch (marked in purple) takes up a position on the opposite side to where the ball is, pulling off the centre-back and providing the option for a long, diagonal ball.

Evolution in possession

When Gerrard comes in a lot from the left, England look a better side. Here, he has drifted in further, and creates a midfield triangle with Carrick and Milner (marked in pink). This allows Carrick to drop deep to receive and have time on the ball.

When this happens, Baines (marked in yellow) finds himself in even more space at left-back, whilst Wayne Rooney tends to drift towards that side too (run marked in orange), creating a left-sided option high up the pitch.

As mentioned earlier, Crouch (marked in green) tends to drift from side to side, according to which flank the ball is on. Here, he takes up a position outside Mexico’s left-sided centre-back.

Creating space for the right-winger

England’s build-up play tends to start on the left, from Rooney and Gerrard, with England’s central midfielders moving to that side. England’s right-winger always stays very wide on the right, though, creating an option for the midfielders to switch the play quickly to the right-hand side, using the pace of Walcott (marked in pink). Here, he is not within 40 yards of another England midfielder, making the Mexico defence slightly wider than it would like to be.

Defensive worries

Firstly, this shows that Wayne Rooney (blue) takes up a left-sided role when the opposition have the ball, which sometimes means he ends up at full-back if the opposition right-back gets forward. Whilst Steven Gerrard and James Milner were switched permanently after half-time, they tended to swap naturally within the game anyway – here Milner (yellow) and Gerrard (green) have switched roles briefly in the first half. England looked uncomfortable with this switching, particularly as they had no designated holding midfielder, so they were quite flimsy infront of the back four.

That back four, though, was the main worry – especially as it is the one area of the team that pretty much remains the same regardless of the shape in midfield and attack. England were consistently opened up through easy balls from midfield towards the onrushing wingers making out-in runs into the centre of the pitch, and were only saved by two excellent saves from Robert Green.

This example above shows why, because the defensive line was poor throughout the game. Admitedly, England had just won possession of the ball so the Mexico attackers are not an immediate threat, but England’s centre-backs have got themselves into an awful shape where the full-backs are five yards behind the centre-backs (all marked in red). This means that England had a huge gap in the centre of their defence – any balls played into the box marked by the pink dots would be an immediate threat. Ledley King had an awful game – constantly being dragged towards the ball by Franco, before being forced to suddenly turn and run towards his own goal – and a quick change in direction is not something King likes. john Terry remains a far better option.

Defending corners

No manager wants to see goals lost from set-pieces, and that’s how England conceded tonight. Leighton Baines marks the near post (yellow), whilst the rest of the players have a hybrid marking system, where Gerrard and Crouch (blue) zonally mark the near post area, with the rest performing man-marking roles. With three players in a specific zone, six man-marking, a goalkeeper and one player staying up the pitch, England were prone to short corners – sometimes tempting Crouch and Gerrard out of position. A potentially lethal set-piece routine would be for the opposition to attempt to move one of Crouch or Gerrard with a run towards the corner-taker, before getting a second player to exploit the space left.

Franco was allowed to wonder into the space between Crouch and Gerrard fairly easily for the goal:


England were flattered by the 3-1 win – two goals came exclusively because Peter Crouch is ludicrously tall, another came from a tremendous strike Glen Johnson is unlikely to replicate in South Africa. There were very few chances created by good build-up play, the ball retention throughout was very poor, and England’s defensive shape was awful, with the full-backs (and the defence as a whole) too deep, combined with the centre-backs coming too high up the pitch towards the ball.

The midfield partnership didn’t work – Carrick has received inevitable criticism but was not particularly worse than Milner. The problem was surely that the two didn’t seem to have set roles, and seemed confused about what they were supposed to be doing. Walcott remains a threat because of his pace (which is vital to that right-wing position considering how much space that player has) but Aaron Lennon remains a better option on the ball. Gerrard looks good in his left-wing position drifting inside, and that part of the pitch will be much more productive when Ashley Cole returns from injury. Crouch might well have moved ahead of Emile Heskey for the ‘big man’ role – he can win the ball in the air and hold it up, but he is also much more mobile than Heskey, which is crucial considering the nature of his role – moving from side to side according to where the ball is.

England’s players look relatively comfortable in the system, although some slight changes in personnel and positioning are clearly needed. The problem is not that this 4-4-2 doesn’t suit England, it’s that it seems too easy for technically good, intelligent players to play against. England struggled to cope against Mexico’s fluid system that dominated possession, just as they have done whenever they’ve faced a top-class side under Fabio Capello.

This shape will easily beat weaker sides, but Capello must experiment with an alternative shape (in training, but hopefully also against Japan) if England are to triumph against world class opposition.

Tags: , , ,