Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Postmortem

It's always very tempting to see a kind of inevitability, a fatedness, in events in their aftermath, and in the case of England's somewhat limp exit from the World Cup, that temptation is hardly as much of a fault as it often can be. Although England defended well in yesterday's quarter-final, with Hargreaves particularly impressively industrious in front of the back four, and thus restricted Portugal to few clearcut opportunities, they didn't create very much themselves: Lennon's scuffed jab at Rooney's miskick, which was comfortably gathered by Ricardo, was probably the best chance they had. This was not out of character for them through the tournament either. Generally, they defended solidly, looking unlikely to be opened up except by a clear mistake rather than the movement either of their opponents or the ball, excluding, of course, the two laughably inept attempts to clear simple set pieces against Sweden. This efficiency and organisation did not, however, translate into and indeed may have hampered invention and speed of thought at the other end of the pitch.

Eriksson must take a substanial portion of the blame for this ultimately pedestrian attempt, ostensibly to win the tournament, but more realistically to improve on quarter-final exits in the last two major competitions. Taking four out-and-out forwards, one of whom had never played top-flight football and replicated that absence at the World Cup, whilst two of the other three were serious injury doubts, was obviously a mistake from the beginning. That mistake was compounded by Eriksson's insistence on sticking with a shape in midfield which made it difficult for him to get the best out of his first-choice eleven. Lampard and Gerrard do not play well together in a conventional 4-4-2: either they both break forward, in which case the side is left short of cover in midfield, or they both sit, in which case the strikers are left isolated. They are both naturally attacking players, and it is either an unaffordable luxury or a plain waste to play both without a sitting midfielder. This is made worse by the fact that neither Beckham nor Cole can go on the outside of the opposing fullback, Cole because he is right-footed and Beckham because he can't beat a man. The centre of the field then becomes congested unless the fullbacks get up to support, which is of course dangerous unless one of the central midfielders can drop back to cover.

Eventually, against Ecuador, having learnt the lesson of the difference five in midfield made against Trinidad and Tobago - Lennon ran at the fullback, pushing him back and laid the ball off to Beckham, who now had the space to cross, to set up Crouch's goal, for example - Eriksson went to five in midfield. Gerrard and Lampard could both get forward, knowing that Carrick was covering behind them, while Carrick, theoretically, could dictate play from just in front of the centrebacks. The problem was that the centreforward, needed to hold up the ball and wait for support from the midfield, was Rooney. Rooney is not at his best with his back to goal: although he's strong, he's aggressive, petulantly really, and not great in the air. England, if they're going to play one up front, need to play Crouch: he can hold the ball up, and knock it down or lay it off for onrushing midfielders in a way that Rooney's lack of stature, impetuousity and even to a certain extent, greater skill, prevent. He is the kind of player others play off, whereas Rooney is the kind of player that plays off others, and it is the former, not the latter, that is needed to play one up front.

You could see this against Portugal. England looked a better side with ten men and Crouch up front than with eleven and Rooney in that position. They were able to hold the ball up and get runners from midfield - typically Lennon - into space, and although Portugal were pressing forward, and so leaving space at the back, for a side with ten men, they created a decent number of chances. The threat posed by the pace of Lennon helped here: because he can beat players on the outside, he widens the pitch, creating space in the centre. I think Eriksson missed a trick in continuing to use the disappointing Beckham, whose set pieces, for all that two of England's six goals came from them, were generally disappointing - think of how many times corners didn't beat the first man - rather than Lennon. If it was for his distribution that he was in the side, which was generally quite good, Beckham should have been playing in the centre, not wide, where his inability to beat a man effectively nullified him in the last third.

Obviously though, England could hardly leave a player as talented as Rooney out, which would be the apparent implication of doing as I suggested and playing with five across midfield. Rooney is, especially as he is so young, a player that sides should be built around. If England maximise Rooney's potential, you feel, they will maximise theirs. The thing with Rooney, though, is that he's not an out-and-out centre-forward anyway: he drifts, he bursts from deep, he looks to involve other players with little one-twos and to shoot from range. The best place to play him is surely off a player like Crouch, who is solid and will provide him with plenty of the ball in decent amounts of space where he can provide the most threat. In short, I'd drop Lampard, who has been disappointing anyway, and play him in the space between midfield and the strikers, dropping off and harrying, as he does so well, when we lose the ball, and then looking to break, at pace, when we win it back.

That would leave the back four as it is, Hargreaves and Carrick to fight it out for the sitting midfielder role, Gerrard, Beckham and Lampard to play alongside Rooney in the more advanced central role, Lennon and Cole on the wings, and Crouch up front. If Owen is ever fit again, perhaps that'd have to change, but for the time being, England need to adapt their system to the players they have available: an excess of talented central midfielders, a gangly striker who holds the ball up well, and a physical, burly number 10 who is at his best running at goal.


dearieme said...

Or use a back three, play A Cole and Gerrard as wing-backs, put Hargreaves, Carrick and J Cole in central midfield, leaving you still with Rooney and Crouch in attack. Lampard isn't a contender until he finds form again.

Rob Jubb said...

I'm not sure about playing with wingbacks: I think that you always risk ceding control of the wide areas to the other side, or else have your central midfielders dragged out wide, losing the advantage of having three in the centre. Also, I wouldn't change a successful back line. That said, it'd probably be better than Eriksson's resistance to changing a clearly failing system.

dearieme said...

I was working on the assumption that Hargreaves could use his stamina and pace to cover for whichever wingback went furthest forward. If 4-4-2, make the middle 4 Lennon, Carrick, Hargreaves and J Cole, Gerrard being dropped until there's some sign that he can play well for England, or tried out at right back. As Neville ages, and if no new right back appears, then that might anyway be Gerrard's fate.

Ben said...

I pretty much agree with all you say Rob.

Lennon - Gerrard - Hargeaves - Cole

Though if we were to play wingbacks, I think Hargreaves would be the RWB. Gerrard's best kept in the centre, though he can play there.

Rob Jubb said...

I think Carrick and Hargreaves in the centre might be a bit too defensive. Hargreaves, although he has a lot of energy, doesn't really look to have the class to break in support of the forwards, and Carrick virtually never gets forwards at all. So I'd probably go with Gerrard and one of those two if I had to play 4-4-2, because he does get forward, and clearly does have, even if he doesn't always show it, the class necessary. It'd be a waste of Gerrard to play him at right-back, although I can see that at right-wingback he'd be useful. Clearly, I'm more attached to Gerrard than you are though.

The problem with Hargreaves going at right-wingback is that I've not seen any evidence that he can really cross the ball.

dearieme said...

Gerrard has been mighty impressive for Liverpool. Perhaps the new manager can get some of that elan on show for England.

Pearsall Helms said...

England were shockingly poor all throughout the tournament. They seemed terrified of possession, making maybe two passes before pointlessly hefting it long.

Rob Jubb said...

I wouldn't go so far as calling them shocking: they were pedestrian, yes, but that kind of precludes being shocking automatically. Neither did they always lump it long, and although Ferdinand was particularly guilty of over-use of the long pass, and slow with it too, even he managed to find players in space from time to time.

Anonymous said...

As to wing - backs and ability to cross, I'd take out Ashley Cole and stick in Wayne Bridge - how many times do you see Cole cross a ball, and how many times with any success?

Young has done OK at right back and is a decent enough short term replacement for an increasingly injury prone Neville.

I'm with you on the rest, though I'd be interested to see how Lennon and Joe Cole could get on swapping wings.

Also, I'd watch out for a return for Wright - Philips, provided he can get a move away from Chelsea.