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Nachiketh Ramesh provides us with a detailed tactical breakdown about what happened in the shocker that ended England 1-2 Iceland.


When England scored its first goal, the Icelandic players must have told “theta reddast” to each other. It’s a common saying in Iceland and means everything is going to be fine. In the end it was all good for the small island nation. Iceland knocked England out of Euro 2016 and forced Roy Hodgson to retire after coming back from behind and taking the lead very early in the first half. Iceland put on a well-disciplined tactical display and with a hardworking and collective approach it managed to stifle England through some good space compression in the midfield.

England Iceland

England: 1. Hart; 2. Walker; 5. Cahill; 6. Smalling; 3. Rose; 20. Alli; 17. Dier; 10. Rooney; 15. Sturridge; 9. Kane; 7. Sterling.

Iceland: 1. Haldorsson; 2. Saevarsson; 14. Amason; 6. Sigurdsson; 23. Skulason; 7. Gudmundsson; 14. Gunnarsson; 10. Sigurdsson; 8. Bjarnason; 9; Sigthorsson; 15. Bodvarsson.

 

Hodgson started with Harry Kane upfront, followed by Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli, and Daniel Sturridge in the attacking midfield. Wayne Rooney and Erik Dier, Hodgson’s preferred central midfielders in this tournament, partnered in the middle once again. Danny Rose, Chris Smalling, Gary Cahill, and Kyle Walker played as the defensive four. Joe Hart started in the goal. England played with a 4-3-3 formation.

Iceland’s managers Heimir Halgrimsson and Lars Lagerback played with their used and trusted 4-4-2 formation. Jon Bodvarsson and Kolbeinn Sigthorsson played as the centre forward duo. Birkir Bjarnason, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Aron Gunnarsson, and Johan Gudmundsson started in the midfield. Olafur Skulason, Ragnar Sigurdsson, Kari Arnason, and Birkir Saevarsson played as the back four. Hannes Halldorsson was the goalkeeper.

Iceland’s narrow attacking structure and ball near compaction during the defensive phase

Iceland, playing with a 4-4-2 formation, had a unique attacking plan. It mainly focussed on getting the ball to the final third by conducting the play through narrow channels in the wings and the centre. To create a stable attack based on some quick passing, Iceland tried to overload the channel through which it was attacking.

Iceland preferred the wings to the centre while attacking build-ups. Attacking build-ups of Iceland were quick, unlike the build-ups of team that play expansive football, and the attacks were based on a plan perfected by practice.

The players, even though they were playing in a basic 4-4-2 with flat lines and no inherent staggering in the structure, created triangles in the channel where the attacks were being carried out. Whenever a wingback of Iceland had ball possession on the wings, he was getting support from the near side winger, nearby central defender, both the central midfielders – Sigurdsson and Gunnarsson, and the near side centre forward. The far side centre forward was also usually joining the party by shifting over to the side where the ball was being played. He was thus completing a complex and inter-connected passing network inclusive of all the players close to the ball holder.

The presence of triangles was helping the Icelandic players retain the ball even when the English were pressing. It also served well in quick ball circulation through precise passes. When it was looking as if the attack was going to get bottled by England, Iceland was somehow managing to get the ball deep into the opposition’s half.

Iceland's attacking shape. Compact in the wing where attack is being carried. Only two players on the far side.

Iceland’s attacking shape. Compact in the wing where attack is being carried. Only two players on the far side.

Whenever England’s players were falling on their Icelandic counterparts and putting pressure on this structure of Iceland, the players were shifting the ball to the other flank through one of the central midfielders. At the receiving end, the winger and wingback were being confronted by only two English players or in some cases three players, creating a 2v2 or 2v3 situation.

So, at times it seemed that Iceland was deliberately inviting England to press its narrow attacking structure on the wing in order to exploit the space available on the far side. Iceland’s second goal came from a similar scenario when the right back Saevarsson received a diagonal ball in England’s half and stretched England’s defensive line.

The narrow positioning of Iceland’s players was leading to the narrow shape on the wings as soon as the ball was being lost allowing Iceland to press with aggression and cover most of the English players in the space around the ball. There were two advantages of this narrow shape and the pressing that followed. One, the basic advantage of pressing, it was helping Iceland in winning the ball back. Two, while a few players from that network were pressing the player on the ball and forcing to pass backwards or sideways towards the touchline, the rest of the team was getting back to its original position. Thus, the narrow shape while attacking was helping Iceland in attack to defence transitions without having to worry about losing the shape to defence piercing passes through the centre from England.

England’s defending

Iceland was narrow, direct, and extremely vertically oriented in its passing during the attacking phase of the game. England’s poor attacking position and lack of pressing in the final and middle third was allowing Iceland to attack freely and manipulate England’s defence. England’s reluctance to press was having serious consequences in the final third as the opposition was getting the opportunities to create scoring chances. During Iceland’s second goal, England did not press Sigthorsson and Co. while they easily passed the ball among themselves and scored.

Also, since Iceland’s attacking shape was narrow, England was forced to stay narrow in middle third so as to stop Iceland from progressing its attacks. This was resulting in open space in the middle and the far side. As explained earlier, Iceland shifted the ball from one side of the field to the other and was attacking the under loaded side. Here’s video showing the same.

Iceland defending and England’s failure to utilize its “sometimes” good attacking shape in the attacking phase

The other aspect of Iceland’s defending was its ball near compaction or being compact in the space around the English player with ball possession. The narrow attacking shape of Iceland was allowing it to have good access to the ball as soon as the ball was lost, thus making their shape a very effective one in constraining England’s passes. Iceland’s focus on creating compactness in the space around the ball was not just limited to one particular phase – say immediately after losing the ball. But instead, Iceland managed to maintain a very tight space around the ball during the defensive phase. The compression of space was denying England the chance to attack smoothly and as planned.

Iceland adopted a man-oriented zonal marking approach. While performing the usual duty as in zonal marking, where a player marks anyone present in his zone, some players concentrate more on the movements of some opponents at particular positions as a precautionary measure. Iceland, in its zonal marking scheme, was man-marking England’s far side winger and wingbacks. While such a move can halt the diagonal balls played by the opponents, it can leave gaps in the middle which can exploited by a laser pass from the wings to the central midfielder. Such a pass will beat the entire team that is on the near side of the ball and leaves the defending team in a perilous situation.

Iceland’s zonal marking approach with some man-orientations on the far side.

Iceland’s zonal marking approach with some man-orientations on the far side.

The above figure shows how well Iceland has established compactness in the space around the ball. This is halting England’s wingback, here Walker, from playing a diagonal ball into the middle. England, in order to find a passage, was forced to move the ball back and re-circulate it between the defenders.

Also see how the man-marking done by the far side wide players of Iceland has opened space for Rooney. In this case, if the ball is passed to Cahill, Iceland’s far side centre forward would’ve pressed him or shielded Rooney from Cahill using his cover shadow. There were many such situations but England failed to exploit them by playing passes to the player in free space. Through good pace and hardworking ability, Iceland players were covering up the open spaces well.

England had a poor attacking shape a few times. There were some bad interpretations of the positional play principles as England had two players occupying the same line, mainly both the wingbacks and wingers, and few players positioning at the same level of depth. This was limiting England’s good passing options. The wide space occupation by the wingers and wingbacks was leading to the space around the central midfielders getting compressed.

No link between England's central players and the players on the wider regions.

No link between England’s central players and the players on the wider regions.

England, due to ball near compaction of Iceland, was able to find some space in the centre. Also, Iceland’s focus on defending the half-spaces coupled with man-marking on the far side was leaving gaps in the regions close to zone 14.

england attack shape

Iceland’s extra focus on half-spaces leaving gap in the middle. Sadly, England couldn’t make anything out of it.

In the above picture, Iceland’s half-space occupation while defending and spread out defensive line, provided England with a great opportunity to switch the ball from one half-space to another and test the defence. This situation was created partly because of Iceland sticking closely to its plan and partly because of some good passing play and positioning in the central region.

Some poor positioning from England. But a good chance in the centre to create something.

Some poor positioning from England. But a good chance in the centre to create something.

In this situation, England, due to Iceland’s man-orientations, has an opportunity to have a go at Iceland’s goal. There was space open in the half-space and Kane dropped into it to provide a diagonal passing outlet for Rooney. This move opened up space between the defensive and midfield line. England had a shot from outside the box and missed the target. England’s attack could’ve been a little bit more lethal had the far side winger moved inwards to the half-space and provided some stability to the attacking structure in the middle. The occupation of same horizontal line, as the far side winger and wingback have done, is not good for establishing a good attacking shape. For a good attacking build-up, depth and line occupation must be different for different players.

England, due to poor attacking shape and Iceland’s central presence, had to try to reach the box from the wider regions using crosses. Even in the situation when a through ball could’ve been tried in the final third, crossing was preferred over it. In the image shown below is a situation which shows a counter attacking move of England. Kane, dropping a large distance, played the ball to Alli, who was free in the ten space and had the strikers zone free ahead of him. But neither Sterling nor Sturridge tried to run through the channels or move inside. Alli had to pass sideways, which resulted in a cross.

Alli in 10-space with 9-space open.

Alli in 10-space with 9-space open.

In the second half, with Jack Wilshere’s introduction, England’s fluidity increased. But the problems related to the positioning still persisted.

The non-verbal communication between the English players was terrible. Most of the players had no clue as to what their team mates were doing. Such misunderstanding leads to poor co-ordination on the pitch. Small co-ordination problems manifest themselves as big tactical problems when a player doesn’t know what the team will be trying with the next pass. The inability to read the game, judge the passes, position accordingly and have a vision before making a pass is just not acceptable for players who play at the top tier of English football. Cahill missed a great opportunity to send a vertical ball to Kane early in the second half as he passed the ball sideways – he chose a square pass instead of one that could’ve provided penetration. Rooney and Dier, in the first half and Rooney and Wilshere in the second half, were having positioning issues and were constantly failing to read each other’s mind and be prepared for passes. Rose had issues in sensing his duties as Sterling was dropping deep while staying the half-space. Kane was unable to link up with the attacking midfielders as this lot had problems in perceiving the ongoing situation and reacting as per the needs.

Conclusion

England had a few good chances to make use of but the players just couldn’t go for the right pass at the right moment. Couple this with the disciplined defending from Iceland and England couldn’t just penetrate the box. Now England has exited Europe for the second time in 5 days.

Iceland played brilliantly. This was a show of its resilience and hardworking nature. They had a plan – simple but effective if used correctly- and used it correctly. However, the issue with leaving space in the middle due to man-marking of far side players needs to solved if Iceland doesn’t want to get hit by a good team. Overall, this was a good win.


Written by Nachiketh Ramesh

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