England 0-0 Montenegro: England outnumbered in the centre and too predictable on the flanks

October 12, 2010

The starting line-ups

Roughly a 50:50 split between a lack of English creativity and some good Montenegrin defending produced a goalless game at Wembley.

England went with their expected side – Peter Crouch and Wayne Rooney upfront, with Adam Johnson on the right and Ashley Young on the left, both cutting inside onto their stronger feet. Aside from that, Capello had few options and the choices were straightforward.

Montenegro were dealt a big blow with a pre-match injury to star man and captain Mirko Vucinic. Zlatko Kranjcar replaced him with an additional central midfielder, with Milorad Pekovic returning after suspension. Other than that, the side was unchanged and as expected.

The injury to Vucinic meant Montenegro set out more defensively than Kranjcar probably intended, and it meant they had an extra man in the centre of midfield – the zone centre-back Miodrag Dzudovic identified being as key before the game. The three central midfielders worked hard to close down Steven Gerrard and Gareth Barry when they got the ball in midfield, and one of them – generally Milorad Pekovic – swept up behind and also took care of Wayne Rooney when he dropped deep.

No natural width

With such a difficult situation in this area of the pitch, England needed to stretch the play and get the ball to the flanks quickly. Unfortunately, Young and Adam Johnson were both keen to come inside and add to the battle in the centre. England’s best moment of the first half in open play came when Johnson finally went down the line rather than cutting inside, though his cross with his right foot was poor. Young’s inclination to cut in should have opened up space for Ashley Cole on the flank, but the left-back was surprisingly conservative and could have played twenty yards higher up the pitch when England had the ball.

England too deep

Indeed, the same could have been said of the whole England team. Barry and Gerrard seemed to alternate, but far too often Gerrard was playing deep in midfield rather than influencing the play in the final third. The usual ‘Hollywood balls’ criticism is not valid here since Gerrard’s passes were generally very accurate from deep positions and quickly switched plan from flank to flank, but this wasn’t where England needed him. Even the centre-backs were deeper than usual – neither Joleon Lescott nor Rio Ferdinand looked to step forward and play ambitious passes. There was no tempo to the game.

Montenegro barely got out of their half, and their attacking intent can be summed up by the lack of movement arrows in the above diagram. However, they were defending well – it wasn’t last-ditch stuff as one might expect, they were instead working very hard to stop England attacks in midfield. The two wide players, Simon Vukcevic and Branko Boskovic also put in excellent performances without the ball.

No tactical switches

If there was little flexibility on the pitch, there was even less from Fabio Capello. Young was encouraged further up the pitch but there was no similar instruction for Cole, who was subdued throughout. The most surprising aspect was that Capello didn’t instruct Adam Johnson and Young to (at least temporarily) change flanks – in a game crying out for the hard-working but fairly immobile Montenegro defence to be stretched, all too often England played into their hands with unambitious play from the creators. Rooney was again underwhelming and dropped deeper and deeper to try and find the ball.

Capello’s changes were straight swaps – Kevin Davies caused some problems and is a better hold-up player than Crouch, but England didn’t get bodies around him, with Barry and Gerrard so deep. Granted, Capello’s bench was weak because of various injury problems, but the reluctance to switch Young and Johnson suggested that Capello didn’t consider changing the system necessary. Some degree of consistency and belief in a formation is understandable, but such a simple change would hardly be undermining England’s structure as a whole.

Montenegrin resilience

Kranjcar didn’t change his system either, keeping nine men behind the ball. Montenegro broke forward slightly more in the second half and actually came closest to scoring when Milan Jovanovic’s dipping strike smashed against Joe Hart’s crossbar. Equally, this meant England had space to break into and they created more chances in the second half.

Montenegro were clever at breaking up the play with tactical fouling, and England only briefly exerted consistent pressure on the away side’s back four. The two Montenegrin centre-backs were also happy to come up the pitch and try and win the ball rather than constantly be reactive and on the back foot. Mladen Bozovic had a few decent saves to make, but England simply didn’t create enough clear goalscoring chances.

Conclusion

Fabio Capello has been treated harshly since England’s World Cup exit, especially as England have performed well in the games since the embarrassing defeat to Germany – but criticism is due here. The whole side was too deep, the tempo was slow, and there was an unwillingness to change things as the game went on. England’s three best players all failed to perform going forward – Rooney is off-form, Gerrard was far too deep, and Cole didn’t break forward enough. All sides have off days and one poor result can be forgiven, but England were very poor.

Montenegro did nothing spectacular, but kept their shape well. They achieved their result by battling hard in midfield and outnumbering England in that zone, preventing the home side from building up play and putting constant pressure upon the defence. Three 1-0 wins and a 0-0 draw (away in their toughest fixture of the group) suggests tremendous organisation and resilience, and with that backbone combined with the return of Vucinic and Stevan Jovetic, qualification for Euro 2012 is a realistic prospect.

England 0-0 Montenegro: England outnumbered in the centre and too predictable on the flanks

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