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Luke Balls-Burgess deviates from the standard criticism routine to analyse what went wrong for England at Euro 2016.
“Systems win you nothing, football players win you games”
– Roy Hodgson, 2016.
To an extent, this is true; after all, a system won’t be there to tap in the teasing ball rolling across the opposition’s six yard box. Nor can a system physically head away the whipped cross or the floated corner delivery… however… a system does provide the framework necessary for its individual parts to excel and connects the individual parts in such a way which increases the chances of a system achieving its objectives. In a footballing sense, the purpose of a system is to increase a team’s chances of creating goal scoring opportunities whilst also limiting the opportunities made available to the opposition.
In England’s first game against Russia, within the first two minutes we saw the failings of the above philosophy. Rooney crowbarred into midfield alongside the younger Eric Dier, who was still learning the intricacies of the position, demonstrated their lack of instinct for their respective roles (I will be referring to the below image). Dier had followed the ball instinctively resulting in him moving closer to Rooney who was already operating in this area, this now means Dier isn’t affecting the game in any way as he isn’t a purposeful passing option for Rooney and he isn’t occupying any opposition players. Alternatively, you could argue that Rooney should’ve sought to occupy an area higher up the left half-space and Dier could instead operate where Rooney is now, ensuring all ten England players are actively participating in the below scenario.
Early on, we can begin to identify structural issues with England’s midfield dynamic as neither half-space is being occupied in the opponents half by an England player. This means England will struggle to disrupt Russia’s organised defensive shape as a number of English players (namely Lallana and Alli) are inaccessible to the ball and passively occupying the congested central channel, thus making it easier for Russia to defend. This is because England are now either forced to try and play through the centre channel, which is congested with Russian players and where England don’t boast any number of competent ‘needle’ players or build their attacks down the wing, where their play can be predictable due to the lack of options available to wide players.
This was a huge problem for England considering their personnel out wide. A number of these players had issues with either their technical or tactical qualities i.e. Walker with his crossing, Lallana with his finishing and Sterling with his decision-making and thus offers one explanation as to why England struggled to score from open-play during the tournament. Mix England’s poor positioning with little to no movement and you can see why England’s only options in possession were to play the ball out wide or clear the ball up-field. Below is another example from the Russia game of how England players weren’t exploiting the half-spaces or moving into areas where they were accessible to the ball. Dier’s only viable passing options in this scenario is a horizontal pass to Danny Rose or to attempt a high risk ball towards the right flank into an area only occupied by Kyle Walker.
The crowbarring of Rooney into a midfield which already hosts Eric Dier also reduces the number of specialist midfielders England have. Throughout the tournament, Dier and Rooney were playing in an unfamiliar position for which they have a lack of understanding of the technical requirements for this all-important position. Both have issues understanding aspects such as spacing between themselves and their teammates (notably whenever one of them approaches a teammate with the ball) and how to use their first touch to face play and prepare for the next pass. Such things slow down England’s play with the ball thus allowing the opposition to more easily maintain their defensive shape and make England’s play more predictable.
It’s a shame England let themselves down so badly with their possession play but not nearly as bad as how they let themselves down defending set-pieces. England’s general defensive structure was rather sound as they sought to defend the deep-midfield zone with a mobile five-man midfield within a 1-4-5-1 defensive shape. As you can see in the below image, the five-man midfield effectively protects the half-spaces whilst crowding out the centre channel thus limiting the opposition’s passing options through the central three channels. England used their five-man chain to press the any opposition midfield who would drop deep to receive the ball off their CBs. The only issue with this shape concerns it’s rather flat structure and the rather large midfield chain which meant that, were the midfield unable to successfully screen off dangerous passing options through the centre, then one pass could remove six England players temporarily from the game. In the below scenario, Russia were forced to float a lofted ball in towards Dyzuba (occupying the space between Smalling and Cahill) which resulted in a turnover of possession after Cahill cushioned the ball back for Joe Hart to catch.
As a result of this however, England only conceded one of the four goals they conceded at Euro 2016 from open play (and from a rather nice piece of play from Iceland in the congested area between England’s midfield and defensive lines (though which also featured a poor example of goalkeeping from Joe Hart)). This means 75% of the goals England conceded at Euro 2016 were from set-pieces, all of which varied in type, a Russian corner, a Bale direct free-kick and an Iceland long-throw. Hart’s positioning for Bale’s free-kick during England’s 2-1 victory over Wales has already been examined and I will not delve into this any further. Russia’s equaliser in the 92nd minute in England’s opener was the result of tired movement after clearing the first ball and poor marking in the immediate phase after the clearance of the first ball. I delve more into the fitness or ‘freshness’ of the England players in a section further down in this piece which will offer a possible explanation as to the tired movement of the England players. All ten England players occupied spaces in their own penalty area to defend the final corner, with the first ball being cleared near the front post, then a full six seconds elapsed before all outfield players exited the penalty area, some only by millimetres. The second ball was pressured by Dele Alli ten yards outside of England’s box whilst the majority of the rest of the team remained somewhat static within their own area. This allowed Russia to switch the play from England’s left side to their right where Russia were easily able to play another ball into England’s area due to England’s slow reaction to the initial clearance. This allowed V. Berezutski to peel off the back of Danny Rose at the far post and head the ball unpressured towards Hart’s goal to create the Russian equaliser.
England’s first goal conceded at the hands of Iceland is even more condemning and even more maddening. Supposedly well aware of the threat Iceland posed from Gunnarsson’s long throws, England failed rather spectacularly to defend this unique set-piece and were thus easily manipulated by Iceland’s dummy runs which made a mockery of England’s mix of man and zonal marking setup.
Somehow, Sigthorsson is managing to occupy both Smalling and Kane near the by-line taking them away from where Gunnarsson will aim his long throw (highlighted by the circle highlighting where Iceland want to win the 1st ball) for the 1st ball to be flicked on towards the far post by the Iceland runners starting on the edge of England’s penalty area. During the move, Cahill is dragged away from the far post by his runner in order to prevent him from clearing or impeding the 2nd ball whilst also opening up space for R. Sigurdsson and Bjarnason to attack at the far post. The positioning and reactions of some of England’s key defensive players certainly suggests a certain arrogance which runs through the team and perhaps coaching setup considering England seemed totally unprepared to deal with the Iceland long throw. For example, why are Smalling and Kane both marking Sigthorsson near the by-line? Why are Sturridge and Rooney responsible for the Iceland runners attacking the first ball? Why are Walker and Alli giving the men their responsible for so much space to have a run at them? And why are Cahill and Dier in areas where they are neither likely to affect the first or second ball? Why also is Danny Rose positioned in an area to defend the first ball? It was an extremely disappointing and pathetic piece of play from England and one which suggested a lack of preparation as well as a lack of determination to reach the quarter-finals ahead of their Icelandic rivals.
Anyone who has observed the England national team over the past few tournaments could develop a case study on mismanagement of elite players with particular reference to the players ‘fitness’ and ‘freshness’. The Dutch fitness coach, Raymond Verheijen, has spent the last few years traveling the world, educating coaches and clubs on how to improve the physical performance of their players. He puts in simple terms how to improve your players ‘football fitness’ and how to keep your players ‘fresh’. Your ‘fitness’ is what it says it is, how fit your players are whereas ‘freshness’ describes how tired your players are. The biggest battle facing the England team is not regarding how fit they are but how ‘fresh’ they are. Every member of the England national team is a first-team regular for their respective teams, with most of those teams playing in European and international competition. For most of these players, this means they’ve participated in over 40 high-intensity games between the months of August and June with practically no breaks at any point in-between. This means every player will be, arguably, the fittest at the tournament however they will also be the least ‘fresh’ or the more tired. Without sufficient rest over the winter period and in-between the end of the season and the start of the tournament, the players will not be able to sufficiently recover their ‘freshness’ and recover from the effects of fatigue. An argument could be made that the cause of the static movement in some of the scenarios above could’ve been because the players weren’t fresh and therefore severely tired and fatigued. It also offers an explanation as to why Kane appeared like a shadow of himself throughout the tournament. It certainly explains the abominable performance witnessed during England’s 1-2 defeat to Iceland during the first knockout round of the tournament.
Another example of mismanagement concerns Jack Wilshere’s selection for Euro 2016 after failing to see out a full 90 minutes with Arsenal over the whole 2015/16 season. Wilshere’s problem was the exact opposite of the rest of his squad mates, though Wilshere was fresh, he was drastically unfit. One reason offered for Wilshere’s continued issue with injury is again offered by Verheijen, who argues that quick build-up of fitness only results in short term fitness, thus leading to failure to build long term fitness, thus resulting in more case of fatigue and injury. When a player is injured, this means they cannot participate in training which means they play in less games with their teammates thus leading to breakdowns in communication (both verbal and (more importantly) non-verbal) on the pitch. To call Wilshere up in a bid to raise his fitness in the shortest time possible before the Euros not only increases Wilshere’s chance of further injury (which would result in less playing time next season and his horrible injury cycle going on and on) but also proves detrimental to the team’s performance on the training field and during the match. What makes Wilshere’s selection even more baffling was the fact that he was picked ahead of the in-form Danny Drinkwater. Fresh off winning Premier League title, Drinkwater would also have been one of the freshest members of the squad due to his lack of participation in European competition over the season and boasts a near telepathic understanding with his Leicester City teammate, Jamie Vardy. Drinkwater’s selection ahead of Wilshere would’ve undoubtedly served the England team (as well as Wilshere) infinitely more.
So far, we’ve examined tactical, technical and physical deficiencies within the England national team so it’s only fitting that we should also seek to offer a psychological explanation as to why England suffered so at the hands of Iceland. With such a young squad, it should be of no great surprise that the team would be susceptible to psychological issues when facing difficult circumstances such as being 2-1 down to Iceland. Such psychological issues would’ve revolved around the fear of external factors such as the scrutiny the team would face from international media as well as the abuse they’d receive on social media. Other fears could’ve revolved around the prospect of having to play a further 30 minutes of extra time in a severely uncomfortable situation even if England had found an equaliser in the second half. Such fears and inhibitions all result in less conscious thought focused on performing the necessary football actions in order to score the necessary goals England would’ve needed to win the match. This results in players lacking ideas during match play and seemingly failing to take responsibility during the match and therefore making a positive impact. In the long-term this could benefit England by providing the scars which would be a painful reminder of the consequences of such performances in future tournaments which would, hopefully, provide the required boost in future, similar situations.
However, this will only benefit England if the same players are involved in the next tournament; otherwise the whole point of ‘blooding’ in the youngsters would become redundant. Young players who were given tournament experience during the World Cup in 2014 for the whole purpose of developing them as players in time for the Euros in 2016 and the World Cup in 2018 weren’t utilised this tournament, namely Ross Barkley and John Stones. There’s no guarantee the same young players in this squad will be up for first team selection by 2018 thus suggesting the balance of youth and experience in this squad was perhaps in favour too much of youth considering we may not see the likes of Rashford or Barkley in 2018. Perhaps England may have been better served by selecting more experienced or in-form players such as Carrick or Defoe and focusing on the development of more assured prospects such as Alli, Dier and Kane (but this is easy to say in hindsight though it does provoke the discussion of how to find the balance within a squad preparing for a tournament). Arrogance also seems to be an apparent problem within the England national team set-up and issue I’ve already explored whilst analysing England’s defeat at the hands of Iceland.
England appeared plagued by a number of issues when you look at what I’ve already explored in this piece and that’s without looking at other issues such as a lack of quality set-piece takers and the lack of depth at international level. England have a lot of self-analysing to do regarding the structure of their national playing and coaching setup as well as reassessment of their long-term aims and objectives and in which timeline they can be realistically met as they’re a long way off reaching the final of a major tournament by 2020.
Written by Luke Balls-Burgess