Montenegro 1-1 England: Montenegro start timidly but introduce attackers effectively

March 27, 2013

The starting line-ups

Branko Brnovic surprisingly started with a lone forward, but ended up with four outright attackers as Montenegro deservedly claimed a point.

Brnovic’s selection was hampered by injuries and suspensions – Miodrag Dzudovic, Mitar Novakovic and Simon Vukcevic all came into the side.

Roy Hodgson made significant changes from the side that comfortably defeated San Marino on Friday evening, with Danny Welbeck, Steven Gerrard, Michael Carrick, James Milner, Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson returning.

A game of two halves – England dominated against an oddly passive Montenegro, but were unable to deal with the increased attacking threat after half-time.

4-2-3-1 v 4-2-3-1

The two managers took the same, caution decision from the outset. Brnovic was expected to pair Steven Jovetic and Mirko Vucinic, but instead moved Vucinic to the right, with Simon Vukcevic playing at the head of the midfield triangle, rather than on the flank. This was probably an attempt to nullify Ashley Cole with a dangerous attacker, and compete in the centre of the pitch with three midfielders.

Hodgson did the same. Welbeck wasn’t paired alongside Rooney, he was deployed on the left flank, with Tom Cleverley (who has previously drifted inside from the left under Hodgson) Rooney’s closest support. Both managers were seeking to dominate the centre of the pitch, or rather, determined not to be overrun in that zone.

Montenegro moved Vucinic upfront, and Vukcevic to the left, after 10 minutes

In the end, ball retention wasn’t a key part of this game. The poor pitch made life difficult for both sides, with a high number of wayward passes from the game’s most talented players.

Instead, both sides looked more dangerous when they got the ball forward quickly, attacking at speed.

England start strongly

England had three good attempts in the opening ten minutes – Rooney’s chip against the post, Johnson’s long-range effort, and Rooney’s headed goal from a corner. Despite a hostile atmosphere and Brnovic insisting England were ‘running scared’ before the game, his starting tactics did little to make England uncomfortable. Montenegro stood off England and allowed the defenders to play forward passes into midfield – and also the forwards.

Rooney’s chip came from a direct forward pass from Johnson, and the ‘long passes’ Brnovic mockingly predicted actually became rather useful – England bypassed the scrappy midfield zone, and exposed the Montenegrin defenders’ lack of pace.

Montenegro change shape, England slow the tempo

The early goal forced Brnovic into a re-think after just 10 minutes. He switched to the shape we expected from the start – Vucinic became a second centre-forward, while Vukcevic (who, it must be said, had a terrible game) moved to the right flank. Montenegro were more like 4-4-2, and although Stevan Jovetic sometimes dropped back into midfield, England had a numerical advantage in the centre of the pitch.

Carrick was often the key man in the first. He remained in a disciplined position between Montenegro’s lines of midfield and attack, enjoying plenty of space to knock calm passes to the flanks and cool the tempo of the game. Montenegro’s 4-4-2 was too flat and basic – there was space between the lines, and the two forwards were frequently caught offside as England kept a surprisingly high defensive line.

Damjanovic became a third forward, Vukcevic moved into Novakovic's position

Plan C

Then came Brnovic’s second formation switch, at half-time – Dejan Damjanovic replaced central midfielder Mitar Novakovic. Vukcevic went inside into a deep midfield role (his third position of the night) and Damjanovic stayed high up on the right of attack. Jovetic and Vucinic played level with him, taking it in turns to work the left of the pitch, and move inside into the centre.

Montenegro were now a lopsided 4-3-3 – the left-midfielder, Vladimir Volkov, is more of a left-wing-back and therefore stayed level with the other two central midfielders, and tucked inside slightly. This unusual shape seemed to cause England significant problems – they no longer had a clear numerical advantage in the centre of the pitch, while the front three pushed back their full-backs and pressed the England backline, forcing panicked clearances.

There was actually a disappointing lack of creativity from Montenegro – neither Jovetic nor Vucinic were at their best – but because they piled men forward and kept getting the ball into the final third, they had a succession of chances.

Hodgson doesn’t use his bench

At this point, it seemed Hodgson needed to change the game. Quite how he should have modified his side is debatable, but considering (a) England were defending nervously at the back, now they were forced to cope with three attackers, (b) they were no longer dominating possession or slowing the tempo and (c) a counter-attacking threat wasn’t particularly obvious, Hodgson could have made a change in any of the three major zones on the pitch, and would have at least been trying to adapt to the situation in the game.

“You’re always debating changes, talking with your staff,” said Hodgson. “But at 1-0, we weren’t 100 per cent convinced there was a change we could make to make a vast difference to what was going on.”

Instead, England remained resolutely committed to their starting system. There were a couple of breaks down the right, through Milner (odd, as that was the flank where Montenegro had protection for their full-back) but the Montenegro pressure kept coming, and it was only a matter of time before the home side scored.

Four attackers

Delibasic came on for Bozovic, with Volkov becoming the left-back

The goal actually came immediately after another Brnovic’s formation change. His second substitution had been a straight swap, to remove the awful Vukcevic, but later he sacrificed left-back Vladimir Bozovic and chucked on Andrija Delibasic – a fourth attacker.

The goal arrived from a corner before their new formation could even be assessed, but now, Montenegro’s forwards were more fluid than ever, rotating excellently and sometimes simply playing 4 v 4 high up the pitch.

Inevitably, Volkov became the left-back. Montenegro were now roughly 4-2-3-1 again, but more like 4-2-4 than 4-5-1, as they had started the game.

At this point, Hodgson removed Cleverley and brought on Ashley Young to play on the left, with Welbeck moving upfront. Maybe he was trying to replicate Montenegro’s strategy of introducing as many forwards as possible.

The game became end-to-end, and either could have won it, but Montenegro would have been more deserving of the game’s third goal.


This was all about Brnovic’s decisions. It was odd that he elected to start with Vucinic wide-left, and the early switch to a 4-4-2 didn’t prove particularly useful, as it allowed Carrick and England to dominate in the middle.

But his half-time switch to a lopsided 4-3-3 worked excellently – Montenegro suddenly had put pressure upon the England backline, and they managed to compete better in midfield too. It was as if England couldn’t work out which area they were supposed to be dominating, how they were meant to cause Montenegro problems.

Ultimately, this match reflected rather badly upon Hodgson. Brnovic did well to get his side back into the game, but he essentially just increased his number of attackers – it wasn’t the most nuanced strategy. Hodgson should have responded in some way to the progression of that game, but remained too committed to his starting approach.

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