Matt Gunn writes a detailed tactical analysis about the recent international friendly that ended England 2-2 Spain.
England’s international friendly against Spain on the 15th November marked Gareth Southgate’s fourth game in charge of the Three Lions and a chance for Spain to make one more step towards regaining their identity as “La Furia Roja”. Despite incredible depths of talent within the two camps, both teams are looking to rebuild their confidence after disappointing stints at the European Championships over the summer, but this time without the old guard.
It was an exciting affair to say the least. Both teams pressed the ball well and looked to attack at every opportunity; in England’s case, to their own demise. The Three Lions conceded two late goals due to their complacent attitude towards the final minutes of the game, switching off to allow Iago Aspas and Isco space inside the area, a pleasant surprise given how well England had defended for the majority of the game.
Spain, as ever, were calm and collected in possession. Busquets gave a masterclass on how to play the No. 6 role while his team pivoted around him. They played their way out of England’s press extremely well, and persevered despite individual errors across the field.
England: 1. Hart; 2. Clyne, 5. Cahill, 6. Stones, 3. Rose; 8. Henderson, 4. Dier; 7. Sterling, 11. Lallanna, 10. Lindgard; 9. Vardy
Spain: 23. Reina; 2. Azpilicueta, 16. Inigo Martinez, 6. Nacho; 15. Carvajal, 5. Busquets, 10. Alcantara, 11. Vitolo; 13. Mata, 21. Silva, 9. Aduriz.
Both Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane were unavailable having been sent back to their respective clubs due to minor injuries, and so the out-of-form Jamie Vardy lead the line in what was to be his most impressive game of the season so far. Lingard, Lallana and Sterling interchanged as an attacking trio behind him, with Lallana looking to push out wide where it was possible to escape the grasp of Sergio Busquets and link up with full backs Clyne and Rose. Dier and Henderson sat in front of the back four, with the latter taking up a pivot role in an advanced position in the centre. Stones and Cahill slotted in at centre back with Hart in goal behind. Stones took up a similar role to which he takes under Guardiola at Manchester City – a ball playing centre back. Often running beyond Dier into midfield, Stones linked up well with Lallana and Henderson while Dier intelligently covered the open space left behind his fellow countryman.
Spain were missing Diego Costa, Sergio Ramos, Andrés Iniesta and Gerard Pique and so opted to field a much more experimental starting line-up. Aduriz started as a lone striker, something we’ve seldom seen over the years since the great David Villa; at least until Diego Costa broke his way into the national team. His physicality and link-up play was intended to offer Spain a target in the final third, though he remained quiet until he was subbed off for the energetic Alvaro Morata. Mata and Silva played in behind Aduriz and drifted between England’s midfield and defensive lines in ways which we are well accustomed to due to their time spent in the Premier League. Thiago and Busquets formed a formidable partnership in midfield, their ability to control the tempo of the game and retain possession despite England’s intense press was impressive to say the least. Lopetegui elected to field three central defenders – Nacho, Martinez and Azpilicueta to help retain possession and nullify Jamie Vardy’s threatening runs. Vitolo and Carvajal were deployed as attacking wing backs and stretched the field of play when Spain were in possession.
True to the current trends within European football, both Spain and England pressed with varying levels of intensity in regards to their opponents’ positions on the field. Both also had varying levels of success with their particular style of press.
England pressed high, particularly when Spain had possession within their own third. Though Spain’s three centre backs offered passing options, their forward movement was limited, meaning they served as a horizontal outlet rather than a forward option. This horizontal alternative was not without benefit however; Spain beat England’s high press by playing diagonal balls into midfield from wider areas – primarily the two wider centre backs Nacho and Azpilicueta. The horizontal passes along the defensive line, paired with England’s intense press meant that pockets of space opened up for Busquets and Thiago to exploit in the centre of the field. Spain’s “in-out” passing style allowed them to retain possession with relative ease and keep England from winning the ball in dangerous areas. England’s pressure on the ball meant that their midfield line sat high up the field, often with vast amounts of space between themselves and the defensive line. However, with their penchant for the long ball throughout the course of the game, they were in prime position to win the 1st or 2nd ball and mount a threatening attack upon an outnumbered and stretched Spanish defensive trio.
Once outside of England’s initial press, Spain dictated the tempo and flow of the game in the centre of the field by developing all-too-familiar passing triangles. With Busquets as a pivot in the centre, quick passes between himself, Vitolo/Carvajal and Nacho/Azpilicueta allowed the Spaniards to escape England pressure zones and shift the ball across the pitch horizontally. The key to their build up was to keep the ball moving – no player took more than three or four touches on the ball unless absolutely necessary. They shifted possession from wing to wing with short passes into the half-space, centre and out to the opposite half-space. These short passes forced England to defend in more of a reactive manner; because the ball is moving so quickly, they are forced to decide whether to press the ball or to pre-empt Spain’s movements and attack the space which the ball is being played into. In many cases, this can cause a defence to become disjointed and in turn open up passing angles between the lines. The exact kind of areas which Silva and Mata can cause countless problems. Thiago and Busquets worked well in tandem to allow for those dangerous diagonal passes. Busquets would drop deep when Spain had the ball, offering a passing option in the centre. Meanwhile, Thiago would stay within 15 yards of Busquets, but take up an advanced position at an angle to his teammate. Because Busquets is facing the ball, if he received the ball from the more central defender of the trio, and Thiago were simply ahead of him in terms of position on the pitch, Busquets would potentially have to turn 180degrees to face his teammate, with an opponent pressing his blindside. However, if he receives the ball from the wider of the three centre backs, or the wing back, and Thiago is at an angle to him, Busquets only has to turn anywhere between 30degrees to 90degrees, allowing him to move the ball quicker and with greater accuracy.
In the second half, England countered Spain’s passing plays perfectly. Instead of two players pressing the ball as they had done in the first half; one player pressed the ball and another pressed the outlet player who was outside of the initial pressure zone. This disrupted Spain’s rhythm and caused them to play longer passes which are easier to read for defenders who are looking to press. Though England failed to capitalize on Spain’s misplaced passes, it’s encouraging to see Southgate change his pressing formula to counter their opponents’ play style.
Spain pressed England relentlessly within their own half, forcing the long ball more often than not. When England beat their initial press, they created pressure zones which forced England wide, cutting down their options to a 180degree angle as opposed to a 360degree angle in the centre of the field. England countered this by overloading the pressure zone and using the touchline to their advantage by keeping it behind them, with the knowledge that they could not be pressed from their blindside. This advantage, along with the overload, allowed England to create their own passing triangles within the wing and half-space zones with the full back as the pivot. As the ball progressed up the pitch, the full back ran ahead offering a forward option to the player in possession – his movement proved difficult for Spain to track and as such, England’s greatest chances came from similar situations.
Substitutions change the dynamic of the game
With Aduriz offering little in terms of attacking threat, Lopetegui opted for the younger, quicker Alvaro Morata to look at getting in behind England’s attacking full backs. The introduction of Isco, Aspas and Nolito also offered Spain pacey alternatives in the midfield area. Those three substitutions gave Spain something they hadn’t had in the game beforehand; players who can run at, and beyond their opponents.
Similar to how England set up with Vardy upfront, Morata looked to attack the channels, often finding himself in wide areas interchanging with Nolito, Aspas and Isco. Both Cahill and Stones had played aggressively in defence with everything in front of them and Spain’s substitutions caused them to be much more cautious in their own final third, in turn opening up space ahead of the defensive pair.
In order to utilize the vast amounts of pace Spain now had at their disposal, Lopetegui looked to play on the counter and allowed England to dominate the centre of the field. The wing backs again offered width and stretched England as they committed too many into attack and failed to find their shape time and time again during their attack into defence transitions. Spain focused their passing through the wide areas with the final ball being a diagonal pass into the half-space. Both goals came from these situations, capitalizing on faults in England’s tactics.
What many predicted would be a drab affair given the important domestic fixtures in the upcoming weeks proved to be an exhilarating tactical battle. Both teams executed their game plans expertly and showed that the future is bright for both English, and Spanish football.
Though, disappointing lapses in concentration cost England dearly on a night which was there for the taking. Spain were shaky at times on the ball, yet they showed incredible perseverance and gave their all until the final whistle. A fantastic game to watch as a fan and as an analyst.
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Matt is a 21 year old Football Writer, Sports Journalism graduate and aspiring Coach from Manchester, UK. He also spends his spare time working for a UK based scouting network as an Opposition Scout. The tactical and psychological side of the beautiful game inspires Matt in his writing and he tries to explore the ins and outs of the modern game through tactical analysis and theory-based articles.
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