With all of the talk of FA Chairman Greg Dyke and the targets for the England national team over the past week, it seems many have already written off the team’s chances of success at the coming world cup in Brazil 2014. There also seems to be an acceptance that England will find it difficult to qualify, and with this mood of doubt and discontent there is arguably a perspective whereby many fans would not be surprised if England were to fail to qualify, or at least not directly progress. Once again England fans have been put through a stuttering and inconsistent qualification campaign, with many unconvincing individual and team displays leaving many questions to be answered. There were many demands set of Roy Hodgson and his team when he took over, not only to get results but to do it with a certain style of football, focusing on possession to make the team more dominant. This is the key to international tournament football, where conserving energy during a hectic schedule is essential by allowing a team to dictate the tempo of a game.
So has this been achieved? Well, England have not failed to dominate possession under Roy Hodgson since the end of the European Championships in 2012, except for a draw away in Brazil. So this suggests they have progressed in their ambition here. We must not downplay this achievement, not only does this produce the benefits mentioned earlier but against the countries at the lower end of the FIFA rankings, competing on technical ability and using more intricate tactics and coaching, is a more convincing and reliable approach than a more direct and physical style of play, a battlefield less gifted footballers are more likely to succeed on. However, there have been several disappointing or underwhelming results, and although teams such as Poland, Ukraine and Montenegro are difficult teams to play against and make up a more challenging group than other major nations may face, a country with ambitions to succeed at the finals of a World Cup needs to convincingly see off these countries and qualify confidently, and so the principle still applies here.
So where is improvement needed? Some have pointed out the lack of English players in the Premier League, the fact that no English manager has ever won the competition. However, these can be shown to be explanations of a more fundamental issue. The key problem, witnessed by many in the game between England v Moldova on Friday, is that England retained a significant majority of possession but did not have that possession in dangerous or threatening areas, demanding teams to really concentrate on their defending which is where the better teams become unstuck. This can be demonstrated through a comparison with the midfielders of Brazil in their match against Australia on Sunday.
As shown in the three figures above (heat-maps courtesy of ESPN), all three England central midfielders positioned themselves deeper to receive the ball and then move forward. These indicate that although England had the majority of possession, the possession they had was mainly in their own territory, and that not enough pressure was put on the defence centrally, relying instead on dribbling or wing play. This is important because no matter how good a cross is, a defender will be more welcoming of a physical battle in the air, with the reassurance of a goalkeeper present, than having to be constantly thinking and reacting to short, sharp accurate passes and tracking runs from deeper positions. A tactic presumably forced by Moldova given the average position of their players in the fourth image. Although the images do suggest a strong, high pressing, defensive line, forcing the opposition to play long balls and be intercepted by defenders who then pass on to the midfielders in order to restart an attack, nonetheless more is certainly needed in order to break teams down.
If we compare the England midfield to the Brazilian midfielders, Ramires, Paulinho and Luis Gustavo in the Australia game in the images below, we can clearly see a much higher position as a unit, and an eagerness to receive the ball in advanced positions, despite these players not being renowned for their intricate flair but a more workmanlike style. This gives the player on the ball greater options, making a better passing team and creates space for wingers such as Neymar and Bernard to have the great games they both played. Although there is a high risk against counter attacks, as demonstrated against England, against a weaker opponent, even Australia a team ranked much higher than Moldova at 123, it shows that a more positive team unit in possession will bring success.
Now against stronger teams this becomes more difficult but against lower ranked opposition, it is surely best to be positive and be assertive with the style of football and compete on a level and at a speed they are not used to. It can be argued that England does not have the wealth of talent that other countries do for whatever reason, but in this game there were three players famed for playing attacking midfield roles and yet it was still not evident. They may not be the right style of player to play it short and quick, and may not be agile enough in tight areas, but they are still top players and experienced professionals and it should not be unfair to ask a player of Gerrard or Lampard’s quality to play such a role against a much lower ranked team.
Now the result may have been strong, but even against the weaker opponents more convincing results should be expected, especially since goal difference could easily become a factor with the Ukraine defeating San Marino 9-0, bettering England’s result against the same opponent. So what does this all mean? Simply, there is something here and now that can be focused on and improved. The idea of dominating possession is great, but it needs to be in the right areas.
Currently, England play good counter attacking football against the more established footballing nations but sometimes struggle against those who they should be defeating more comfortably. They could do with more players and better suited players, but that was not necessary here and the concern is compounded by the fact the lone striker was a target man, which would rely on midfielders getting around him for support, and yet it still was not even attempted.