England 1-0 Slovenia: England more balanced and better in possession

June 23, 2010

The starting line-ups

A much improved performance from England that sees them narrowly progress into the knockout stages of the competition. Slovenia looked to be through at full-time, but a late goal from Landon Donovan against Algeria sends them out.

England made three changes from their 0-0 defeat with Algeria. Matthew Upson replaced the suspended Jamie Carragher, with John Terry shifting across to play as the right-sided centre-back. James Milner came in for Aaron Lennon, and Jermain Defoe was ahead of Emile Heskey.

Slovenia were unchanged from their match against the US, with Milivoje Novakovic dropping off Zlatan Ljubijankic upfront.

In raw tactical terms, this game was possibly the least interesting of the competition so far. 4-4-2 against 4-4-2. Both sides with attacking full-backs, both with one forward playing slightly behind the other.

The biggest difference between the two teams was their pressing, and their tempo. This was probably a reflection on the objectives of the two sides – England needed a win, Slovenia would have been content with a draw. Slovenia’s forwards generally dropped deep into their own half when they lost possession, trying to cut off the ball towards England’s central midfielders, rather than pressuring the centre-backs. Partly as a result of this, John Terry and Matthew Upson played quite high up the pitch – maybe too high, as on a couple of occasions Slovenia exploited the space in behind, and quicker players would have caused England more of a threat in this respect.

England’s approach was the opposite. Wayne Rooney and Jermain Defoe harried and pressured the Slovenian centre-backs, exposing their weaknesses on the ball, and England won possession in the final third far more often than in previous games. It was a typically ‘English’ performance in this respect, with the cooler climate of South Africa more conducive to high-tempo football than in previous international tournaments. This suits both Defoe and Rooney – not the most intelligent or positionally-aware players when not in possession, but certainly ones who will work hard to try and win the ball.

Milner’s positional discipline key

England's shape was a lot more balanced today. James Milner (pink) hugged the touchline, meaning Glen Johnson (green) was able to make Chile-style diagonal runs from full-back, into a position where he caused a threat, and he was slightly unfortunate not to win a penalty in the second half. Meanwhile, Milner's width meant that Steven Gerrard (blue) could venture inside without making too narrow, and in turn Ashley Cole (yellow) was able to overlap.

A big part of why England played well today was because of the positional sense of James Milner on the right-hand side. As outlined in the England v Algeria report, Aaron Lennon’s frustrating tendency to come inside from his wide position made England narrow and predictable in the final third, especially with the nature of Steven Gerrard’s left midfield role.

Milner was a constant outlet for England when they had the ball in midfield and he also stretched the Slovenian defence. It was fitting that he provided the assist for England’s winner – a simple but superb cross which met Jermain Defoe’s near post run.

Defoe and Rooney have rarely functioned well together, but today it worked reasonably well. In England’s first two games (particularly against the US), Emile Heskey dropped deep to win the ball in the air, whilst Rooney held a position high against the defence. He rarely got on the ball to influence the game in a creative sense, and there were few crosses coming his way to provide a goal threat. Today, Defoe played the ‘on the shoulder of the last defender’ role, and Rooney dropped deeper. From here, he frequently linked up well with Steven Gerrard – most notably when their interplay created a good chance for the Liverpool captain at the start of the second half – he shot straight at the goalkeeper.

Slovenia lacklustre

It certainly wasn't...

Slovenia were fairly disappointing. There was little plan B when they went behind. Of course, they didn’t know that they were about to be eliminated, but have you ever seen such a low-key exit from a major tournament from a side losing the game by one goal? They pushed forward slightly, but nothing remarkable. They brought on attackers, but took off attackers. They seemed to switch to something more like a 4-3-3 at the end of the game, but the full-backs (both of whom are very quick and decent on the ball) could have been told to move 25 yards higher up the pitch, with England unable to retain possession upfront until Heskey replaced Defoe.

That said, they still had their chances – and although Terry, Upson and Johnson all made superb blocks and tackles at various points, it was still slightly alarming to be seeing such last-ditch defending against a side that really offered very little creative threat throughout. Valter Birsa, Slovenia’s best player in the competition so far, was particularly underwhelming, only completing 19 of his 39 attempted passes. Halfway through the group stage Slovenia looked to be sailing through to the knockout stages  for the first time in their history, but they’ll now go home wishing they’d given it more of a go in the final game.


England played well. The tempo was quicker, the passing was slicker, but they’ll need to play much, much better to defeat quality opposition. The positives – Gerrard and Milner’s positional sense, Defoe’s goal, the attacking displays from the full-backs – should be balanced with a recognition that the tactics they used today might come up short against a quality side. Future opponents will not be as limited on the ball as Slovenia’s centre-backs, or allow Milner to get crosses in so easily. They will also counter-attack much more effectively – with both England full-backs getting forward, Terry and Upson/Carragher on a 2 v2 situation is not desirable considering the relative lack of pace in that department.

But this was not about honing tactics for future opponents, it was about getting the tactics right on the day to pick up three points. Capello got it right.

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