England 4-0 Bulgaria: Hattrick for Defoe as England cruise to victory
A great start, a quiet first half and then a dominant end to the game, as England opened their qualification campaign with a much-needed high-scoring win.
Fabio Capello chose to play Wayne Rooney with a partner, Jermain Defoe, rather than in the lone striker role he occupied in the recent friendly against Hungary. Theo Walcott and James Milner were the choices in wide positions, whilst the rest of the team was as anticipated.
Stanimir Stoilov opted for a 4-4-1-1 system, with two deep midfielders and Ivelin Popov playing just off Valeri Bojinov upfront.
The most notable feature of the first half was how poor the away side were. Bulgaria lacked any kind of cohesion when they didn’t have the ball (which was most of the time) – there was frequently a huge space between their defence and their midfield, which Wayne Rooney constantly looked to drop into, and found plenty of space in the hole. The role of Bulgaria’s midfielders was confusing – they neither seemed to be pressing England’s central midfielders, nor dropping close to their back four and denying space in that area. They ended up being bypassed as England played the ball around them.
Cole key for England
England’s best attacking moves came when Ashley Cole was involved in build-up play. With England using James Milner on the left – able to get to the byline, but more often than not coming inside, Cole had plenty of space in wide areas, and a couple of excellent passes from Steven Gerrard and Gareth Barry brought him into play nicely. It was Cole’s dart into the area that had given England the lead – he knocked the ball into the six-yard box, and Defoe’s swivel and volley put England one up.
The goal had also stemmed from a mistake in possession by the right-back, Stanislav Manolev. What England were doing far better than at the World Cup was pressing high and early, and in the opening stages Bulgaria had problems getting the ball out of their own third. Here Bulgaria’s two banks of four played into England’s hands – had they played with three central midfielders, for example, they might have been able to play the ball around England’s pressing.
England rarely threatened to extend their lead despite their first half dominance – Milner was doing a good job defensively but there didn’t seem to be any specific tactic to involve him in attacking moves, whilst Walcott wasn’t being used to his full potential – balls were being played to his feet, rather than in behind the Bulgaria left-back Zhivko Milanov for him to run onto. When on the ball he seemed reluctant to try and beat Milanov (either with a trick, or with raw pace) and took to standing the ball up high towards the far post – probably not the best tactic with Rooney and Defoe hardly towering strikers.
Issue with pressing
The game was more exciting in the second half. Bulgaria were much improved – their passing was more assured and also more direct, and they were constructing decent attacks by playing the ball over the top, in behind the England defence. This is a factor to consider when praising England’s pressing – the knock-on effect is that it means playing a high defensive line (or leaving a huge gap between the midfield and defence), and England probably don’t have enough pace in their defence to justify this approach. It’s been cited as a problem with John Terry – perhaps slightly unfairly – but balls over the top have certainly caused Michael Dawson and Phil Jagielka some problems in the last two England games.
The more Bulgaria came forward, however, the more England had space to break into. All three second half goals came from counter-attacks, or mini-counter-attacks. Most interesting was the fact that Wayne Rooney assisted Jermain Defoe for two of those goals – that is a partnership that has never worked well. Today, Rooney played deeper than he did in the summer, and therefore there was more of a creator-finisher model, than the situation in South Africa where both stood upfront and waited for service. Adam Johnson’s goal was also a plus (although it was awful goalkeeping), and the central midfield partnership of Gerrard and Barry worked nicely, aided by the lack of Bulgarian runs from central midfield.
Was it a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2? It was probably both – and neither – so 4-4-1-1. Rooney was certainly deeper than Defoe, coming into midfield and looking for the ball, whilst Walcott was more advanced than Milner (split wingers having been a key feature of Brazil, Holland and Spain’s sides in the summer).
Ultimately, it wasn’t a particularly good test for England – Bulgaria were poorer than expected both tactically and technically. The Switzerland game on Tuesday will be far more interesting.