Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Hungary game will teach us nothing

This post is in expansion of ideas upon the previous, and an attempted response to some of the feedback received. 'Why Capello...' was not an attempt to answer all of the national teams on and off-field problems in one article, but to highlight that the England boss has other and more important issues to solve than just brining in a few fresh faces.

That said, this post will focus more closely upon what it will take Capello to get our national team playing better, he himself having admitted he does not know how to do so. While my last entry looked at Capello's 'new' squad and some problems surrounding it, it did not look at any tactical changes required in the England setup. This is our problem: (I promise I'll write more optimistic articles in the future)

The best teams in the world play with two deep-lying central midfielders. Although not necessarily accurate, my observation is that one is predominantly a ball-winner, the other a holding player and distributor. c.f. van Bommel/de Jong; Khedira/Schweinsteiger; Busquets/ Xabi Alonso (loosely). Capello's and England's favoured 4-4-2 formation supplies one, in Gareth Barry, who had a poor tournament to boot. In Barry's absence against the USA, no holding player was selected, because, as is so often seen with England, players were picked for their names rather than to fit in a tactical system: Lampard and Gerrard, a midfield duo time and again proven incompatible. This was poor tactics by Capello.

More on the problem of England being a 'team of individuals' later. This modern system of two deep central midfielders allows for more adventure in attack than Capello's 4-4-2 has to offer, with, again in reference to the World Cup, two attacking wingers, an attacking midfielder and a forward completing the 4-2-3-1 system. Germany's example is arguably the finest template for this (although they further separate themselves from England with two deadly international goalscorers), while the Dutch were hugely successful with exactly the same setup, as were Spain, who are now World Champions *. England's formation, in comparison, got them nowhere. Lampard continues to fail to balance defence and attack in an England shirt, while the only instance of a wide player showing any continued penetration was Milner against Slovenia. England scored three goals at the World Cup.

Furthermore, a point which I did not originally raise but wholeheartedly agree with, is England's use of a target-man. Target men are typically found in teams with little confidence in their ability to play their way through sides, weaker teams who look to score their goals via route one. It can be effective, in Bolton Wanderers and New Zealand, for instance. Central defender Christopher Samba has even been used in attack for Blackburn for his physical presence. England clearly don't set their standards high with this tactic.

Linked to this, England's passing ability is clearly not one of its strengths, which drastically hinders the team against world-class opposition. Our cross-completion-rate in South Africa was 21%, ranking us 26th out of 32 in the competition, even with a target-man in the team, and precisely what he is in the team for. Our pass-completion was 73%, way down on the world's best, but competitive with the likes of Germany and the Netherlands, only without their effective attacking abilities. Nobody had more shots on target in South Africa than the Dutch. Midfielders who can pass the ball need to be brought in, and what difference would a player as gifted in that department as Paul Scholes have made to our chances? Another issue with our passing is our patented 'long-ball' technique, which England resort to time and again with no results, despite everyone's knowledge of its ineffectiveness. It even lasted longer in the set-up than Heskey, its main beneficiary, did, with Rooney and Defoe our target-men against Slovenia and Germany. It's not funny.

This is our problem. With 4-4-2, England are good enough to beat the likes of the Ukraine, Croatia and Belarus in qualifying with bad formations and players out of position, which is why the Hungary game will teach us nothing unless we try something new in our tactical setup. It will continue to work against the likes of Wales and Bulgaria, whom we face in qualification for Euro 2012 ^. But the modern formation has been laid out in front of us (and in variations of it such as Manchester United's brutally destructive 4-3-3 of 07/08), and the tactical lessons are staring us in the face. Will England learn something this time?

From formation to team selection. It has often been accused of England that they are a group of 11 individuals, rather than a team. One of Capello's major tasks when he was appointed manager was to address this issue, yet we have the same problems. Gerrard was played out-of-position at the World Cup to accommodate Lampard in the middle; players continue to play selfishly in pursuit of their own egos; Heskey kept being selected. We can beat teams like Hungary like this, but not Germany or Spain. In an otherwise disappointing and populist report, senior BBC reporter David Bond correctly identified that Capello may appease some fans by bringing new faces into the new squad, but major changes were not made. 'If he had wanted to make a grand statement, then dropping either Lampard or John Terry would have told the world he really meant business', Bond writes. Capello has not immediately addressed the need to pick a team over merely the players with the highest reputations. Meanwhile, during commentary in that game in Bloemfontein, Mark Lawrenson laughably asked Guy Mowbray rhetorically how many German players he would trade into the England team: 'two?'. Lawrenson both vastly underestimated not just the German side's talent, but also how much a team game football is, more so at the highest level than at any other. Lawrenson's attitude is part of the problem.

With the right tactics England are not miles away from success. Talented youth is being brought through, but the FA needs to do more if England want to compete at the highest level. UEFA data tells us that England has 2,769 coaches holding B, A and Pro UEFA coaching badges, an appalling statistic compared with our supposed rivals Spain (23,995), Italy (29,420) and Germany (34,970). How can we expect to produce players of a similar level and in similar amount to these countries with our current coaching facilities?

Tonight England return to action. The Wembley atmosphere is sure to be hostile, which will certainly not improve the self-confidence of the players, and they will be witnessing a match both unwanted by club managers and unlikely to offer any solutions to the side's problems. If Gerrard wants England to 'prove a point', they will not do so against Hungary, no offence intended at tonight's opponents. Tactical changes will be welcome, but hopefully Capello will not be getting too carried away if we beat Hungary with our usual 4-4-2. We can beat them like that, can't we? ...



* Spain's formation can be seen as 4-2-3-1, with Xabi Alonso, Busquets ; Iniesta, Pedro, Xavi ; David Villa (or Villa left-wing with Torres up front), but should not be compared with that of Germany and the Netherlands due to the unique interplay between their men.


^ It's a telling fact that the only teams England have beaten in knockout stages in the World Cup since 1966 have been Paraguay, Belgium, Cameroon, Denmark and Ecuador.

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