England: potentially dangerous on the break

June 12, 2014

When Roy Hodgson named his 23-man World Cup squad, the most controversial decision was about the identity of England’s back-up left-back

If this seems particularly odd, it’s because the debate wasn’t really about Luke Shaw – who was eventually selected – or Ashley Cole. It was more about what that selection symbolised. Were England going to rely upon a member of the ‘golden generation’ yet again, despite their constant failures at World Cups, or were they going to turn to a fresh,  exciting, attacking and technically excellent youngster, to evolve the side?

Youth

Hodgson’s decision to take Shaw was surprising, but it’s actually in line with many of his selection decisions since taking charge of England two years ago. He was happy to start Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain against France in England’s Euro 2012 opener, for example, despite the fact he’d started six Premier League games in his career.

Indeed, since Euro 2012 – a tournament where Hodgson was appointed weeks before, with little preparation time – he’s made a very clear attempt to involve new, and often young, players before there were widespread calls for their inclusion.

For example, he called up Adam Lallana three games (and three defeats) into his Premier League career, and Raheem Sterling two games into his. Both had to wait for their opportunity to start England matches, but both experienced superb second seasons, and could be key this summer. Similarly, Ross Barkley was selected after six Premier League starts, and Andros Townsend (injured for the World Cup, but England’s best player in their final two qualification matches) after 12.

Yet despite this, it’s only Shaw’s inclusion that has seen Hodgson’s intention understood. English football loves creating a caricature of a manager, often regardless of the truth – Hodgson is old-school, and relatively old, but he’s put his faith in youth.

Formation experiments

Something similar can be said about Hodgson’s favoured system. While undeniably a natural 4-4-2 man, Hodgson made a deliberate effort to move away from that system throughout qualifying. In half of the ten qualifiers, England played a midfielder (Jack Wilshere or Tom Cleverley), as the number ten, ensuring it wasn’t a 4-4-2, but a 4-2-3-1. In the other half, Wayne Rooney played deep enough to suggest it was a continuation of that system. In March’s 1-0 friendly victory over Denmark, England played a 4-3-3, with Rooney and Daniel Sturridge taking it in turns to play on the flanks. England have hardly played 4-4-2 in the last couple of years.

That experiment with a 4-3-3 was unquestionably an attempt to replicate the system Liverpool were using, and featured five Liverpool outfielders, including four of the front six. Rooney was essentially the Luis Suarez figure, with Jack Wilshere as Coutinho. Steven Gerrard sat deep in his new-found holding role, Jordan Henderson provided the energy, while Sterling and Sturridge played in the front three. Liverpool might have failed to win the Premier League title in dramatic circumstances, but they still enjoyed a fantastic campaign, and Hodgson was right to try that shape in an attempt to bring some of Liverpool’s sparkling attacking football to the national team. (That, of course, is ironic considering he was highly unpopular as Liverpool coach due to lack of success and an unpopular defensive style.)

The 4-3-3 didn’t quite work, though, because neither Rooney nor Sturridge are best out wide, and also because Gerrard remains something of a worry in that very deep role. It was a worthwhile experiment, but Hodgson has instead moved back to the 4-2-3-1. Gerrard will now have a midfield partner, probably Jordan Henderson, with two standard wide players and Rooney just behind Sturridge.

Rooney issue

Rooney retains his place because theoretically he offers moments of magic, but there’s increasingly a sense he causes problems in terms of structure. He can play too high up in the number ten position – which, of course, risks turning the 4-2-3-1 into a 4-4-2, which was precisely what happened at World Cup 2010.

Probable starting line-up

The following tournament, Euro 2012, demonstrated Rooney’s lack of tactical discipline because he failed to mark Andrea Pirlo effectively, allowing Italy’s regista the run of the midfield. At England’s past two major tournaments, Rooney’s positional indiscipline has been the major tactical problem, and it will be amazing if Pirlo is allowed to go free in England’s opening game, especially considering the likes of Henderson, Welbeck and even Sterling are all extremely disciplined.

England’s Plan B is Rickie Lambert, a late developer who is a more well-rounded player than often given credit for, but he really is a Plan B – it would surely take injuries to all three of Rooney, Sturridge and Welbeck for him to actually start.

Rooney and Sturridge looks to be the combination upfront, while Henderson’s club form and Liverpool connection means he’s a better partner for Gerrard than Wilshere. The real question mark is on the flanks, where Hodgson has genuine options – Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lallana, Sterling, James Milner and Welbeck.

Flanks

First choice on the left appears to be Welbeck, who started there in four of England’s final five qualifiers, (he was suspended for the other) and two of the three warm-up games. Although as a natural striker you’d expect him to run in behind from that position, in reality he drifts into very narrow positions and holds the ball up – his pass completion rate is always very high.

Lallana is the favourite on the opposite side. He’s a very unEnglish player, capable of creating chances with clever through-balls, using space intelligently, and playing the ball with both feet. His one shortcoming is his lack of outright pace, at least when comparing him to the likes of Sterling, Sturridge, Welbeck and Oxlade-Chamberlain, and this might prove his downfall. Hodgson likes speed on the flanks, and wants to hit opponents quickly with speedy transitions before they can get their defence organised, and get men behind the ball. Lallana might be better suited to the number ten role, if Rooney gets injured or suspended (or if Sturridge becomes unavailable, with Rooney moving forward). It would be a shame to waste the pace of some excellent young wingers.

Sterling, in particular, is heavily pushing for a starting place. Although he was dismissed in a warm-up match (as a substitute, meaning he didn’t start any of England’s pre-tournament friendlies), he seems to have both the discipline and the tactical discipline to play a wide role in this system. He’s incredibly quick, a good dribbler, and the type of fast, technical player this England side needs on the flanks.

Midfield

Regardless of whether he’s protected by Wilshere (more technical quality) or Henderson (more energy), Gerrard as England’s deepest midfielder remains an unconvincing solution. While he performed solidly for Liverpool throughout their title charge, his nomination for Player of the Season overstated his impact, and ignored his defensive deficiencies.

He was outclassed by top-quality players like Lallana and David Silva in a deep role, even if Liverpool won those matches to hide his struggles. He’ll be playing a slightly different role for England, in a midfield two, but England have so frequently struggled in the zone between defence and midfield, and it’s easy to imagine something similar happening here.

Defence

The defence is relatively solid. Gary Cahill had an excellent campaign with Chelsea, while Phil Jagielka has been struggling with injury but is rarely outbattled. Leighton Baines is excellent technically and a fine set-piece taker, but his major quality is crossing, which might not be particularly useful for a defensive-minded, counter-attacking side without a natural target man – which is why Cole can feel so disappointed not to be part of the first XI, never mind the squad. On the right, Glen Johnson is habitually caught on the ball and caught out of possession in qualifiers and friendlies, particularly at Wembley, but performed solidly at World Cup 2010 and was England’s sec0nd-best player, behind Gerrard, at Euro 2012.

There’s a real worry about the lack of depth in defensive positions, however. Shaw is a great talent but has little experience, while Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have stagnated at Manchester United. Both those players theoretically act as cover for right-back as well as centre-back, with a recent experiment with Milner at right-back unsuccessful. Joe Hart had a wobble late last year, but is nevertheless a good goalkeeper.

Conclusion

Hodgson’s usual gameplan is about sitting deep and breaking quickly, which seems to suit the majority of his players, but England’s transitions haven’t been particularly impressive in recent matches. If this can be solved, however, and Sterling and Sturridge replicate their Liverpool form, England could be both exciting and effective on the break.

It feels like Hodgson’s style acts a leveller. England fare better than you’d expect against strong opposition, but aren’t good at breaking down weak opponents, and it’s easy to imagine them drawing plenty of matches – which won’t be appreciated if they reach the knockout stage, considering their atrocious penalty shoot-out record.

Quick guide

Coach: Roy Hodgson, an old-school manager who concentrates heavily on defensive shape.

Formation: It should be 4-2-3-1, although in the past Rooney’s lack of discipline has made it more 4-4-2.

Key player: Henderson – England need mobility to prevent Gerrard being overrun.

Strength: Good defensive shape and pace on the break.

Weakness: Likely to be exposed in midfield

Key tactical question: How good are the transitions?


England: potentially dangerous on the break

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