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England v USA: Deja Vu?

June 13, 2010

The overwhelming feeling when watching England play in major tournaments is one of déjà vu. Actually scratch that, it is flat out frustration. But when trying to read up on match reports from the 2006 World Cup to make comparisons I stumbled upon this quote from BBC’s 606: Have Your Say service: ‘England were ordinary in the first half and dreadful in the second. It’s 2002 all over again! ‘ This morning will no doubt see the usual mix of English pessimism and scapegoating of Rob Green in the papers, while a few dissenting voices remind us all that it was simply the first game. My stance is close to the latter; the USA are not a bad team, which can be forgotten, they also have a manager who takes his game preparation very seriously . Bradley’s religious like fervour for watching game tapes paid off as he constructed a plan that subdued England’s major threats and allowed the USA to play on the counter while defending reasonably comfortably for the majority of the match. But as an England fan it is too easy to ask the question: ‘What has changed since 2006?” and find the answer is very little.

The Gerrard/Lampard debate will rage on like it did during Germany ’06. Can they play together? Terry Venables writing two years ago and yesterday believes they can, while Alan Smith ), and the ITV commentary and pundit team, believe that they played well together last night. Here’s why they are wrong.

If last night proved anything it was that the combination of the two is doomed to failure. The key determinant in this is that Emile Heskey was probably England’s best player on the pitch. This should never happen. I’m not even trying to be facetious, because in the system that England play, or at least the way people want them to play, and they way they played during the majority of the qualifying campaign, Heskey should act as a foil for others. His role should be that of a Victorian child: seen but not heard. He should be there and thereabouts, doing his job as effectively as he can and allowing other players around him to be the focus points. In a rare piece of insightful commentary from ITV (it was unsurprisingly not from Andy ‘Euro Files’ Townsend) Clive Tyldesley likened Heskey to Stephane Guivarc’h the lone striker for France during their 1998 triumph who contributed no goals but unselfishly allowed the bigger names to function around him by dragging defenders out of position and holding the ball up.

The non-scoring striker is a reasonably modern phenomenon, the epitome of the idea that a team should be greater than the sum of its parts. It functions around the idea that you pick the best players for the best system, not the best system for the best players. This is why Heskey plays, so Gerrard, Lampard, Rooney and others can excel around him. But he should never be the focal point of the attacks, the fulcrum yes, but not the focal point. Yet last night Heskey was expected to start, and finish, the bulk of the attacks that England initiated. Too often the plan was to completely bypass the midfield and lump the ball for Heskey to flick on, however, Rooney was often taking advanced positions wide or dropping short, so while Heskey was winning a lot in the air, the second and more important ball would fall to the grateful Demerit and Onyewu who spent much of their game acting as sweepers.

Without Ferdinand England lack a ball playing centre-back and this problem was highly evident last night. With Terry partnered by Ledley King and, in the second half, Jamie Carragher, the CBs were incapable of carrying the ball over the half way line themselves. This, in itself, is not a great problem, CBs capable of doing this are the exception and neither Upson nor Dawson is able to do this with any regularity either. However, this then necessitates the playing of a deep lying midfielder to collect the ball short and move it on, allowing the attacking move to begin in the ‘d’ of the centre circle. A Hargreaves, Parker or even Barry thrives in this position (as much as Gareth Barry can ‘thrive’), and again takes up the selfless task of facilitating the actions of the ‘better’ players around them. While Gerrard and Lampard did little defensively wrong last night that was because they were both doing the same task, helping each other out. It is all well and good to see the two of them hound a player off the ball, but the attack then stagnates when they find themselves standing within five yards of each other. The solution however is simple, drop Lampard. He was anonymous for the whole game and is the weaker of the two. Put Barry in the hole when he is fit or try Milner there in the next match. Give Gerrard the freedom to play further up the pitch and see what happens.

However the game wasn’t wholly dominated by the perennial Gerrard/Lampard question, there was also the question that has raged in my head for much longer: How is Shaun Wright Phillips considered good enough to play for England? The Milner substitution was not that odd when you consider he had been ill in the days leading up to the game and did look off the pace, committing as many fouls as he had touches of the ball in his 30 minutes on the pitch. But the decision to play him left-midfield was baffling, seeing as all his best form has come in the centre of the park and the fact he is right-footed and does not get a look in on the left wing at club level thanks to Messrs. Downing and Young. His replacement Shaun Wright Phillips looked equally as innocuous on the left, but without the flu-based excuse that Milner had. His most noticeable contribution was to run the ball out of play for no apparent reason three times and miss the second gilt-edged chance England had in the match. The decision not to take a specialist left-winger is looking confusing right about now. While Adam Johnson sat uncomfortably on James Corden’s new TV shows’ sofas, he would have been far better off sat on England’s bench, ready to make the impact against the USAs full backs who looked shakey against pace the few times they were tested. While the theory of the inside out winger is becoming more widely accepted in the modern game I still find problems with it, especially for those teams who try to emulate those who do it successfully, usually because of an extraordinarily talented player. As a West Ham fan I saw this approach implemented poorly multiple times this season and SWP down the left flank last night bore all the hallmarks of Alessandro Diamanti doing the same thing against Wolves down the right.

In the frankly illuminating diagram above, the inside out winger, in this case SWP, leaves the area between the edge of the penalty area and the by-line virtually untouched, preferring to cut inside early, or pick the ball up, run at the full back and then cut inside. This can be effective, but it is reliant on the ability of the SWP to beat his man on the inside, and that the FB, Ashley Cole, can overlap with speed and encroach on the ‘No Go Area’. However, the USAs star man, Landon Donovan, was patrolling the right flank for much of the game, forcing Cole to be far less adventurous in his attacking play, limiting his runs to barely crossing the half way line and rarely overlapping.

Returning to the déjà vu theme, we saw the mercurial Aaron Lennon deliver the sort of performance that highlighted his promise 4 years ago, but simply frustrates now. His raw pace and ability to glide by his full back is a joy to watch but his constant poor decision making is a real hindrance to his game. However, the right hand side was where England had the majority of their attacking joy, when it wasn’t simply pumped up for some punt’n’flick fun with Emile Heskey. Key to this was my man of the match Glen Johnson, who, while remaining untroubled at the back, put in a great shift going forward, looking our most dangerous attackive force. Returning to the diagram, when Lennon got to the by-line Johnson was either with him or offering an alternative option on the edge of the box. The dotted line highlights when Lennon cut inside and Johnson offered the overlap, something which occurred often. Interestingly, we saw Johnson pick the ball up from deep and run forward (imagine Johnson starting with the ball and running along the solid line), allowing Lennon to offer an unorthodox overlap by re-overtaking Johnson to get to the byline and deliver the cross. The combination of these two was successful and as Lennon readjusts to international football we should see some joy out of this. Question remarks can remain over Glen Johnson’s defensive capabilities however seeing as he was barely tested by the USA. Most concerning here is his seeming lack of confidence when dealing with the high ball, he often lets the ball bounce before heading it back to the ‘keeper instead of heading it out for a throw in or attempting a volleyed clearance. His lack of aerial dominance may become apparent against a team who plays the long ball. This will be important at this World Cup considering all of the CBs on display for England, with the exception of Dawson who will probably not play, lack any semblance of pace, meaning Johnson will be expected to cover the runs in behind the CBs and deal with crosses from his opposite flank.

It was, as England matches so usually are, a highly frustrating encounter, with tactical decisions and a shocking error taking up the bulk of the post-match discussion. The lack of a specialist left-winger, or even someone accustomed to playing the inside-out role, is worrying, as is the fall back to the seemingly irreconcilable problem of playing Lampard and Gerrard together. But it is only the first game and England do have the capability to improve greatly, but they cannot afford to make these same mistakes again.

A piece by Nick Robbins

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