Article by Ian Hammond, follow him on Twitter here: http://twitter.com/#!/IHammie13
Check out Ian’s blog here: http://woodworkfromtrees.blogspot.com/
The two recent wins recorded for England against minor opposition in the European Championship qualifiers will be, for many, the same old boring England. The unconvincing victories look to have provided little entertainment and few lessons or knowledge gained about the England team. England versus Wales at Wembley, on its own, fitted this bill. The comparison to the way in which the team played against Bulgaria though should highlight some key points in how to get this England team performing near its potential. There were moments of great interplay against Wales, for one: the well worked goal. In the Bulgaria match this happened a lot more often, on a pitch which did not suit this style of play and in a much more hostile atmosphere.
The difference between the two matches was most obvious when the ball was in England’s possession. The proximity of players, of both teams, to the ball left the team looking void of ideas once more. Wayne Rooney cut a very lonely, frustrated figure amongst the red of the Wales defence, and not for the first time in an England shirt whilst operating in that lone striker role. Without the runs of Young, Downing and Walcott, as we saw in Sofia, keeping the ball, let alone hurting the opposition became much more difficult. This isolation of England’s attacking players is a credit to the Welsh defensive unit but highlights a long standing limitation to England’s play which runs deeper than just the formation and is also indicative of their recent performances at Wembley.
The strengths of an England side at the top of its game are continuity, responsibility, mixed with an attacking flair. When England’s players are deployed with such distance between the lines of players all these factors, which are equally as important, lose their prominence. Gary Neville has been vocal over the ability of England teams to keep the ball in the past, blaming sub-standard technique. These two games show how attributing ability to keepi the ball to only technique is misguided and simplistic. Ball retention is achieved not just by great passing, but movement of players so not to leave the ball isolated.England found themselves isolated in possession on too many occasions at Wembley on Tuesday. A look at Spain’s World Cup victory in 2010 is testament to this.
The key to shacking off England’s reoccurring woes does not lie in formation and selection issues necessarily: many top sides deploy their teams in a number of varied fashions, whilst keeping their overall game similar, and achieve similar success and/or attractive football. The same movement and interchange should occur whether there are three central midfielders or two. The movement of players and the ball, at Wembley, has an ere of entitlement about it, something England can ill afford. This lack of movement has been a problem of England teams through the Noughties which links back to overemphasis on the individual in England teams. It seems many players look to others to provide the brilliance, giving the impression they do not have the desire to perform. More likely, these players do not have the space, but either way, it not only hinders the team, but encourages the opposition. A move away from the individual must occur, allowing partnerships to flourish and remove the isolation of England’s stars.
This advancement of emphasis on the team must also incorporate the selection of players based of merits. This is not merits of ability, or form, as is often quoted, but merits of what they bring to the team. There has been much emphasis placed on whether Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard can work together in the same team, but it goes further than this. Wayne Rooney has frequently performed better with a foil, either with a second striker (Emily Heskey was lauded for this role in the run up to the World Cup), or as in Sofia with Young in ‘the hole’. Many players possess International quality individually but balance is a much greater quality. All big club teams have players in their squad who complement the headline makers, and without which regular wins would be unsustainable. Seydou Kieta only missed two league matches for Barcelona during the 2010/11 season when many would not list him in their best starting XI, while Cesc Fabregas cannot hold down a spot in the Spanish national team.
The role of club teams could also be an important tool in Capello’s (and his replacement when the time comes) locker. Manchester United, the English champions play football in a way which seems to lend itself to the current top English performers in the Premier League. A solid defensive base which hits fast and high on the wings complements a sharp finisher playing off a clever and technically gifted number 10. This of course can change into a number of formations, but the mentality and partnerships formed remain. Sir Alex Fergusons side do not win championships on their team selection or individual talent, much in the same way Barcelona’s unrelenting skill is not the only formula to their success. The other exciting teams emerging at the top of the Premier League along with the old heads of Chelsea and Arsenal also bring similar players and mindsets to the locker, which must be utilized.
When Robert Earnshaw fired over the empty net from close range on Tuesday, it saved the blushes of the England side and Capello. Perhaps, though, that miss will prolong them in the long run. England’s performance against Bulgaria was not perfect, but seemed to be a huge step in the right direction. The Wales game showed little of this important movement and increased responsibility, and despite Earnshaw’s let off, the Wales game was back to England’s worst. Capello is correct to be trying new formation of play but they should not have such discrepancies in style. In the run up to the European Championships the lessons learnt in these two games could, and should, prove vital. So, when looking at these two matches, it is important to recognise these differences in analysis and not to forget them in the future.