We go round in circles with the England team every 2 years. Every time we exit the Euros or the World Cup, we go again and gradually build ourselves back up through friendlies and qualification games against inferior sides. Generally, our record is pretty strong in that time, and without fail the media begin asking questions about whether the side has matured, got over the disappointment of being knocked out by *insert name of superior national side here*, and whether we’re finally ready to seriously challenge in the next tournament. It’s like clockwork. This is the latest offering – http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/32141469 – a fantastic display of fence-sitting, and the most general verdict imaginable, insufficiently analysing the available material since Brazil 2014. “England are doing well now, but this might still be a problem. We might do well in the Euros, but on the other hand, we might not.” Thanks for that. If you’re posing a question, you may as well answer it properly.
Whilst wins over San Marino, Lithuania and Slovenia may look pleasing and help build up confidence, they unfortunately cause amnesia to the difference between England and the better national teams. Italy were a more even match for England, but the first half of Tuesday night’s game should be a timely reminder of how far behind we are tactically and technically, and more worryingly, not making any progress.
I have just begun reading The Secret Footballer’s new book, and he makes a great point regarding players being brought up on the continent to be comfortable everywhere on the field. It talks of encouraging wingers to play in more central areas and explains how Vincent Kompany started as a midfielder at Anderlecht which has helped him be comfortable in possession at centre-half, a type of player that England produce with an alarming lack of regularity. Tuesday’s friendly provided evidence of the opposite as an English tactical experiment was quickly abandoned by Roy Hodgson in light of the clear problems it was encountering. Phil Jones hasn’t spent much time playing as a defensive midfielder, and certainly hasn’t been exposed in that position to the conditions international football would offer, and it showed. Similarly, Theo Walcott looked lost playing just behind the strikers as he’s grown up taking the ball on the touchline and running onto passes behind the defence. This isn’t a criticism of the players or even Hodgson, more that their formative years of training haven’t sufficiently incorporated periods spent in more unfamiliar positions which would allow them to play there without discomfort.
If this is compared to Italy – and this was a really inexperienced Italy side, the difference is clear. Not long before half-time, Italy had broken up an England attack and the ball ran to striker Éder, making only his second international appearance, well in his own half and out on the right touchline, with two England players sprinting at him. In fact, his first touch is the most impressive as he takes it into an area where he can’t be closed down in time and buys himself an extra second. He also knows to do this rather than try to take the ball past his opponent where plenty of covering defenders are present but none of his team-mates. Then instead of playing the ball up the channel, he holds it an split second longer (allowed to do so because of the touch he’d previously taken), and plays it inside to a team-mate before receiving it back, having moved into the space vacated by England’s chasing players, and finally plays a crisp pass into the centre of the pitch – all this from a striker finding himself on the right touchline in a position typically occupied by a winger or wing-back. It looks simple, but you would be surprised at how easily players go to pieces and resort to the safety first approach when picking up the ball in areas of the pitch unfamiliar to them.
Another thing that sticks out watching England is the lack of composure the defence has on the ball. Opposition teams typically allow our defenders time and space on the ball, because they know they can’t hurt them with it. Italy sat very deep in the first half on Tuesday night meaning England’s midfielders and attackers were always marked. They were content to let the back four bring the ball forward as they wouldn’t have quick enough feet or good enough vision to spot any dangerous passes, or passes into areas where the ball could then be effectively manipulated. As long as the dangerous areas – which of course vary according to the position of the ball – were blocked off, England’s defenders could have the ball.
Again just before half-time, play is restarted in defence with a free-kick for offside, and Italy’s strikers have dropped right into England’s midfield to mark Phil Jones. Phil Jagielka and Kieran Gibbs are allowed to take the ball up to the halfway line where they are pressed and forced back. The ball is worked over to the other side where Jones comes in to pick the ball up from Chris Smalling and plays it over to Jagielka, who comes forward and backheels it to Gibbs after he has checked his run. The ball is then worked over to the other side to Nathaniel Clyne, who plays inside to Jordan Henderson. Quickly pressured by three Italy players who are able to do so by not getting drawn out to press unnecessarily, he plays a ball round the corner in the hope a team-mate is making a run. Harry Kane actually does very well to get there but is forced back and it ends up with Clyne again, who plays a deep cross looking for Fabian Delph. The ball runs to Gibbs and when his attempted cross is blocked, it leads to the attack described two paragraphs above.
At no point during the moves, all initiated by the defence, did Italy look in danger of conceding. None of the defenders managed to spot reverse passes into players which would have thrown Italy’s defence off-balance, and none of them could adjust their feet quickly enough when the ball was returned to them from a more advanced player, meaning they had to return to base to launch a second wave of attack.
When appropriate, pressing England rarely fails either. If one of our players takes a loose touch, is forced to retreat or is outnumbered by the opposition, more often than not they’ll win the ball or force England back to their own goal and therefore be able to recover their shape. A good example would be how Italy pressed our defence to force us into surrendering possession just after they had lost the ball, with the score still at 0-0. They began pressing just after we had picked up the ball after it was flicked on by an Italy player. Delph is facing his own goal and has to go to Jagielka, with the weight of the pass forcing him back and pushing Italy’s players further onto him. Jagielka waits and goes to Smalling who has four Italy players in a square just in front of him, with no England player in that hole. Jagielka makes an angle for Smalling to his left and is able to pass back to Joe Hart once receiving the ball. When Hart gets the ball, there are too many Italy players nearby and the pitch has been squeezed too much for passing the ball out to be a low-risk option. He plays a long ball to the right touchline, which puts possession of the ball back in the balance, and it is won by Italy.
On a side note, this is where a lot of fans misunderstand things. Teams are accused of being ‘negative’ when this happens, on the ridiculous basis that they are passing backwards and sideways. If a team goes back towards its own goal when being pressed, it’s because it can’t go anywhere else. If a team can’t go anywhere else, it’s because the defending team is reading the play quicker than their own players. The problem is that, having observed how impressively teams are able to play around their opponents, backwards and sideways passes are becoming frowned upon in English football to the extent that players will try to play forwards when it’s not possible – this includes lofted passes that the recipient has only a 50-50 chance of winning. The reality is that the team, or at least certain areas of the team at a given time, has to be reading the play and anticipating which areas will be the best to both to receive a pass in and play a pass from. And we still aren’t producing players fluid enough across the pitch to be able to master this.
England did play better after the break, for the simple reason that players were playing in their best positions. Ross Barkley and Andros Townsend knew when to drop into the spaces between the opposition defence and midfield and when to break their necks to support the forwards, and Michael Carrick was comfortable enough on the ball to distribute to them, which pulled Italy back towards their own goal and in turn allowed our attacking players more space further up the pitch.
But this system has its limitations. Football isn’t so rigid that all eleven players operate within their own designated territory of the pitch and are responsible for what happens there. Players need to leave these areas as, to give two examples, covering for a team-mate is essential to keep defensive shape, and creating an overload on one side when going forward is one of the best ways to score a goal. What happens when players invariably find themselves outside of their comfort zone a few times per game? If they’re not given time to settle on the ball when it falls to them there, and they haven’t had enough experience in that area, they panic and give the opposition a high chance of regaining possession, thinking the job has been done by not making a mistake leading to a clear opportunity. When that is compared to how other sides in the top bracket deal with these situations, we simply aren’t on their level. In my last piece, I detailed how effortlessly Barcelona broke a press from Man City on a couple of occasions by trusting themselves on the ball and reading the play, one of which led to the goal. This is a clear difference between England and the better sides at this level, and it’s achieved by years of familiarising players with every part of the field while they’re learning the game.
So to answer the question of whether we have improved since the World Cup, we probably have a little bit; the players are almost a year older and a year more experienced. Have we addressed our shortcomings enough to allow us to become a side which will go deep into tournaments and compete with the best? Not at all, and this cycle will repeat itself every two years, after each time we have come up short at a World Cup or European Championships, because we won’t do anything about it and continue to misread the recipes for the winners’ success. The FA will try to look like they’re doing something by launching a scheme purporting to help young players, while remaining far behind the curve. And more articles pointing out the team’s progress while detailing nothing of note will be published. I’ll therefore look forward to write a carbon copy of this piece around two years from now.