England 1-1 USA: England poor in possession, US get wide players forward well

June 13, 2010

The line-ups

England were the better side, but struggled to make their dominance count and came close to losing the game. The USA’s 4-2-2-2 shape caused problems and prevented England’s full-backs from getting into the game.

England started with their usual shape from qualification, Wayne Rooney partnering Emile Heskey upfront. In Gareth Barry’s absence, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard played together in midfield and James Milner started on the left – although only stayed there for half an hour.

The US also fielded their usual shape, a 4-4-2 / 4-2-2-2 that saw Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey supporting Jozy Altidore and Robbie Findley. Steve Cherundolo started ahead of Jonathan Spector after the latter’s poor run of form.

Firstly, we must clear one thing up about England’s formation, as it has been expressed as both a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1 throughout Fabio Capello’s reign in charge. The two systems look different in pure numbers but can be similar on the pitch – if one striker drops off and the wingers push on in a 4-4-2, you have a 4-2-3-1 fairly seamlessly.

England, however, played a 4-4-2 in this match. Wayne Rooney did not play between the left-winger and right-winger, he played upfront and, in fact, often in advance of Emile Heskey for much of the game.

One of the biggest issues from the game was always going to be the question of whether the Gerrard-Lampard combination worked. Slightly surprisingly, they were given the freedom to dovetail at will throughout the game, rather than one of them being given a specific brief to sit in front of the defence. When this has happened before, it has often resulted in an unbalanced centre of midfield with both looking to make forward runs, but both were responsible positionally whilst getting forward when appropriate, and it’s fair to say that defensively, England rarely had problems stemming from a position those two were meant to be occupying (with the obvious exception of the goal, for which the blame is clearly not with the midfield).

This shows why the US system is often termed 4-2-2-2 rather than 4-4-2. The defensive midfielders (green) and the strikers (blue) take up conventional positions, but Dempsey and Donovan play very central (pink) forcing the England full-backs to come narrow.

The problem with declaring the system a (partial) success, though, is that they were never going to be tested in that respect anyway. In Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark, the US play two defensive-minded midfielders that rarely look to link up directly with the forwards. They leave that to the wide players – and in fact, the full-backs offer more attacking threat than the central midfielders.

Onyewu dragged towards the ball, example 1. Here, he is too concerned with Rooney (in pink) and gets too far in advance of his defensive colleagues (all four in yellow). Gerrard (in blue) exploits the space and scores.

It’s simply not possible to treat this as an audition for the Gerrard-Lampard partnership being deployed against sides that play a deep-lying forward or an offensive central midfielder, where their defensive abilities would come under a lot closer scrutiny.

Heskey plays role brilliantly

Another classic England-related debate concerns Heskey, a notoriously goal-shy striker that many fans would prefer to see nowhere near the squad. This game showed his value to England, however – he constantly won aerial balls, held the ball up, and (perhaps surprisingly) showed very good movement when England’s creative players got the ball. He had done his job within the first five minutes with his assist for Gerrard’s goal – receiving the ball to feet, playing a simple pass for an onrushing midfield player, and England were ahead.

Onyewu dragged towards the ball, example 2. Again, he is caught too far up the pitch. The left-back Bocanegra covers, but this leaves an easy ball on for Aaron Lennon, who ended up playing the ball across the box rather than shooting.

As seems to have happened in every opening game of major tournaments in recent years, England went ahead and then became sloppy. The US goal was unfortunate and was slightly against the run of play, but England were not controlling the tempo of the game, nor were they dominating possession as well as they should have.

Both Gerrard and Lampard played some awful passes and demonstrated exactly why so many believe England’s poor ball retention skills will prevent them from winning this competition. On paper the technical qualities of the England central midfield pairing are far superior to their opposite numbers on the US side, but Bradley and Clark were not overawed and did their calm, unspectacular jobs well.

US ambitious in possession

Firstly, the problems Oguchi Onyewu suffered throughout the game are documented in the three pictures here. This problem was something ZM highlighted when previewing the US side – see the bottom picture here. Some might say he was “Doing a Vermaelen”.

Great credit should go to Bob Bradley for getting his wide players into advanced positions. Donovan and Dempsey came off the flanks to provide a threat from a position England aren’t used to dealing with. The England full-backs were forced to play very narrow, and this in turn opened up space on the flanks.

Onyewu dragged towards the ball, example 3 - it happens yet again, this time, the space is exploit by Heskey, who should have scored.

This helped the US full-backs, because they constantly looked to bomb forward and provide the width that was lacking when the front four all moved centrally. Although they rarely had a direct influence on the game, it stretched the England defence and helped the attacking quartet find space. An example of this was the early headed chance for Altidore – the crossing opportunity was there because of Cherundolo’s 50-yard decoy run from full-back (see bottom picture). Many sides would have kept their full-backs at home against an England side containing plenty of pace, but the US’ attacking instincts paid off.

In particular, Donovan’s advanced position made it very difficult for Ashley Cole to get forward, and he rarely had an influence in the attacking third. This is a key part of stopping England – with no left-footed attacking player, they rely on Cole for attacking width on that side, and with the right-winger Aaron Lennon asked to hug the touchline and generally not being involved in build-up play, England found it difficult to create chances, especially with Bradley and Clark patrolling the midfield side-by-side and tracking the runs of Gerrard and Lampard well (after the goal).

Late on

Cherundolo provided good support from right full-back. Here, he provides an overlap (blue) shifting Milner out of position, and letting Donovan find room to cross.

Neither side really used substitutions to change the game in terms of tactics and formations. England started to push forward late on but this forced their centre-backs into a high line, and exposed the lack of pace at the back. Jozy Altidore outpaced Jamie Carragher incredibly easily and had his shot turned onto the woodwork by Green. Carragher looked a yard off the pace for the entirety of the second half, diving in and getting himself in poor positions.

England’s best opportunities were when the US defence became narrow, and a late ball was played to one of the two wide players. Aaron Lennon did his job well – he got to the byline and put in a couple of excellent balls, whilst also playing a good through ball for Heskey who shot straight at the goalkeeper. Shaun Wright-Phillips wasted a good chancend did little of note in his hour on the pitch.


England rarely start well in major tournaments, and the result was not entirely unpredictable. We should avoid going overboard, but the game presented so many problems for Capello – Milner’s indiscipline, King’s fitness worries, Carragher’s lack of pace, Green’s confidence after his mistake, Heskey’s wastefulness (despite his otherwise excellent display).

England’s formation as a whole didn’t look to be the problem, but this game suggests that stopping Rooney getting on the ball and stopping Ashley Cole getting forward stops England. The one bright spot was the right-hand side, where Lennon and Glen Johnson attacked well and created chances.

The US will be delighted with the result. Bradley’s instructions to the wide players helped the US get a grip on the game and caused England problems – a straight 4-4-2 v 4-4-2 would probably have resulted in England dominating to a greater extent, but Donovan and Dempsey’s position put pressure on the England central midfielders and the England full-backs.

There were issues at both ends of the pitch, however. The centre-backs get dragged towards the ball too easily, leaving gaps in the defence – if those gaps are filled by the full-backs, then easy balls to the opposition wingers can cause problems. Meanwhile, the Findley-Altidore partnership worked reasonably well but was fairly easy to read – there’s surely a need for one to drop off to a greater extent, in order to provide the US with a different option when they win the ball.

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