England 0-0 Algeria: shocking display from Capello’s players

June 19, 2010

A terrible performance from England in a game completely devoid of any attacking inspiration. Algeria defended excellently in their unusual 3-4-2-1 shape and got the result they were playing for, but England made it easy for them.

England made three changes from their first game against the United States. David James replaced Robert Green after his mistake, Jamie Carragher replaced Ledley King after his injury, and Gareth Barry replaced James Milner after his nightmare on the left.

Algeria made one outfield switch from their opening day defeat to Slovenia – Rafik Djebbour was dropped and in came Ryad Boudabouz. They also changed their goalkeeper after a sub-Green mistake in the first game.

This meant further changes for both sides in terms of positioning, although both kept the same formation. Gareth Barry’s presence in the centre of midfield meant Steven Gerrard moved to a narrow left-sided position with license to roam, whilst Boudabouz played as the right-sided attacking midfielder, a role previously taken by Karim Matmour – he instead moved upfront and looked to drop deep.

Algeria achieved their objective by simply defending in numbers. The wide players drop back when not in possession and create a 5-4-1 system when they don’t have the ball, which made it very difficult for England to work the ball into dangerous positions. The movement of the two attacking midfielders was particularly troublesome for England – when Algeria attacked, they caused the central midfielders problems, when Algeria defended, they were trying to prevent the full-backs getting forward.

England struggle

England never looked like getting past the Algeria defence because they were faced with a spare man at the back, in a fairly flat three man defence. The key to getting the better of a three-man defence in a 2 v 3 situation is to try to pull them across the pitch, but England rarely did this – Wayne Rooney was surprisingly static and could have drifted into slightly more intelligent positions when not in possession, but instead he and Emile Heskey either stayed alongside each other, or looked to drop deep. There was never any lateral movement.

The key when facing a 3-5-2 (or variation) is to get your full-backs forward, and Ashley Cole did that throughout the game, often playing ahead of the midfield. On the other side, Glen Johnson needed to be more reserved because of the threat of Karim Ziani, and the fact that England had natural width on the right-hand side anyway.

Gareth Barry did a very good job defensively, often tracking one of the midfield runners well into a goalscoring position, and he should be praised for his positional awareness and concentration levels – playing as the sole holding midfielder against a side playing two players ‘ in the hole’ is a difficult job, and England were far better with him in that position than if they had persisted with the Gerrard-Lampard partnership.

Problems with width

Aaron Lennon constantly came inside rather than getting down the touchline. He needed to be braver and give Nadir Belhadj more of a problem by staying wide and high when Algeria got the ball – this would have either pushed Belhadj backwards to pick up Lennon, and therefore take him out of the equation, or forced one of the three centre-backs to come across to the left-back position, which would have removed Algeria’s luxury of a free man at the back.

This is fairly basic stuff, though. Under Fabio Capello, England’s wide-right midfielder has always been meant to hug the touchline rather than drift inside. Capello reportedly left Theo Walcott out of the dquad because he was positionally undisciplined and looked to move into the centre of the pitch, and with Lennon doing the same here, it was no surprise when he was replaced by Shaun Wright-Phillips – who did nothing of note but at least stretched the play.

Minor Algeria threat

Algeria dominated possession for periods of the game, as you would expect for a side essentially fielding six midfielders. Indeed, you can stretch that to seven – because Matmour is plainly not a forward, let alone a lone striker. His movement was decent but he offered no threat in behind, which is the obvious way to catch out a defensive partnership of John Terry and Jamie Carragher.

They threatened down the flanks when the wing-backs combined with the two attacking midfielders, but they then had no further pass, with Matmour marked by the two England centre-backs. Passing in triangles is the best way to unlocking defences, but Algeria’s passing combinations in attacking zones were in pairs rather than trios, and they struggled to create in open play.

England sloppy

England, too, were playing in straight lines. Off-the-ball movement was non-existent. Gerrard’s license to drift in from the left seemed to evolve into a free role – something rarely suited either to a 4-4-2, or to an English footballer. Lennon and then Wright-Phillips tried brief spells on the left that seemed to confuse the whole team, and at one point on 24 minutes, Lennon was on the left, Gerrard was right-centre and Lampard was right midfield. This wasn’t fluidity, it was confusion.

The most shocking thing was how many misplaced passes there were when England players were under no pressure whatsoever. They needed a player deep in midfield to retain the possession and switch play, and a player higher up the pitch with genuine technical quality on the ball. Michael Carrick and Joe Cole would have been appropriate replacements, but both sat on the bench whilst Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe came on – as if Capello thought England had been creating plenty of opportunities but needed someone on the end of them. The one England player who had a decent game, Ashley Cole, wasn’t being used enough. He attempted 37 passes compared to the 71 of his full-back colleague Johnson.

With the Algeria attacking midfielders ending up centrally when attacking, and their wing-backs being reasonably ambitious in their attacking intentions, sometimes England needed to get the ball forward quickly. When they tried a more ambitious pass, though, it was a long punt to Heskey, which produced nothing because Heskey was having one of his off-nights. And when Heskey has off-nights, he is a truly awful footballer – his first touch deserts him, he times his jumps wrong, he clatters into opponents. He was excellent against the US, but offered nothing here.

Egypt similarities

Disappointingly, Capello had a warning about this three months ago. England’s friendly against Egypt at Wembley saw them playing a North African side that used a 3-4-2-1 formation. They had less possession of the ball and were deservedly 0-1 down at half-time, when Michael Carrick came on and was by far the best player on the pitch. He transformed the game, resulting in a 3-1 England win – he would have been perfect tonight.

The case for Carrick’s inclusion has been argued on this site before and doesn’t need to be repeated, but some quotes from Xabi Alonso this week made for interesting reading:

“John Terry, Stevie Gerrard and Wayne Rooney are the obvious names when you think of the important players for England…if they are on top of their game and if Carrick plays, because for me he is a top player, then England will have a chance. If Carrick plays for the national team the way that he does for Manchester United, then it would be very good news for England. I think that he could easily fit in the Spanish system because I really like the way he plays. He reads the game so well, he is always ahead of what is going to happen and he is always in the right position. When he gets the ball, he plays it easy and he is available to his team-mates all the time. For me, he has the profile to play for Barcelona or any of the Spanish teams. He would also be very complimentary to Stevie.”

England plainly can’t even vaguely control a game with two central midfielders – so there’s a need for a third, and that third man is Carrick. He is alarmingly off-form at club level, but should that matter if the player is being brought in to play a specific role in the side to bring the best out of others? Capello clearly doesn’t think so, considering Heskey’s place in the side.


A good, dogged display by Algeria defensively and a well-deserved point, but in their two games so far they’ve offered nothing in an attacking sense. If they don’t score against the US in their final game, they’ll be out of the competition.

Their defensive display doesn’t explain England’s lack of movement or creativity, nor their terrible passing. It’s not the end of the road for England, but one more performance like this, and it will be. They can still progress to the latter stages, but it surely won’t be with this XI, and maybe not with this formation.

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