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It’s hard to know where to begin with England. Euro 2012 really showed up our national team’s limited ability. Various factors effected this but a couple stood out more so than others – injuries and formations. Oddly, Roy Hodgson should have looked at United as a case study and now he, like Alex Ferguson, needs to ensure that his team change their tactical approach.
Hodgons’s a 4-4-2 man. There’s no getting away from that. That formation though is somewhat dying – as this blog has previously noted, specialisation has moved coaches towards the use of three men in the middle because these technically gifted players are unable to play in a two. Two men central midfields are therefore rare now because, quite simply, three men will almost always overrun two.
It’s simple when you think about it. The advantages of three tend to be possession and therefore chance creation. It’s fair to say that England’s midfield were almost forever overrun at Euro 2012. Yesterday, they were outpassed nearly three times over by the Italians, who were also more accurate in possession than England.
Whilst many cried for some excitement in what England were doing, what they needed to achieve was far more simple than that – they had to challenge their opponents and get on top of the game – not just for three minute spells, but for long periods. Gerrard is a very good player and had a decent tournament – key assists and good leadership shouldn’t cloud the fact he was most certainly lost in the middle. It’s no fault of his, he never plays in a two at Liverpool for a good reason. Parker’s an effective midfielder but he was out of sorts at this level – again, through no fault of his own.
It’s hard to blame Hodgson either – he really had no alternative to Parker-Gerrard in the middle. The losses of Barry and Lampard pre-tournament were huge. You’d like to hope that with someone like Barry available, England would have considered a three in the middle: Barry-Parker-Gerrard. It wouldn’t have been the best midfield at the Euros but would have England a darn sight more control than they did have.
For one reason or another, I keep coming back to Carrick. A player I hugely admire and yet many still are incapable of recognising his ability. Astonishingly, 54 players have been capped since he was last and that includes: Bothroyd, Heskey, Kevin Davies, Warnock and Jarvis. United have predominantly played a 4-4-2 and despite coming up against more packed midfields, they regularly control games. The reason is that if you don’t have two all-rounders capable of playing in the middle (and I’m not sure any club side does), then the key is possession. Carrick and Scholes as a pair may not have power but they have precision. They command games because they retain the ball, they rarely give it away, and they use it well. This was the route Hodgson ideally had to go down.
Ultimately, England were somewhat toothless. Going forward they seemed to lack imagination and pace. Young strikers Welbeck and Carroll did they best with what they were given whilst Rooney looked like he lacked match sharpness (after an injury or significant time out, he always requires games to get his rhythm back). There’s no doubt Ashley Young was the biggest disappointment – singled out to be England’s key man, he looked scared of playing at this level and repeatedly tried to do too much. England weren’t actually that bad at committing numbers forward but often failed to convert breaks or possession into decent chances. There was panic and teams found it too easy to keep England out.
The future has to see one of two things happen: a final shift from the ‘Golden Generation’ and a move to a more competitive system. There are plenty of talented young players coming through who now need to be given a chance to cement England places – Welbeck, Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain etc. They need to be able to compete at the very top level and to be given a chance of doing that will involve a move away from the most English of formations.
United discovered last season that they can beat a lot of sides playing a 4-4-2 but to try to beat the best, they have to be able to play more of a 4-2-3-1 system. Like United away against Man City, defeat last night for England wasn’t the sore point, it was the manner in which the team were dominated that was so galling. Poor Italian finishing was the sole reason that once again penalties decided England’s fate.
Alongside Hodgson is one of football’s up and coming thinkers. Gary Neville has surprisingly proven himself to be extremely adept at deciphering why and where teams go wrong. Between them, you’d hope they’ll look at Neville’s former club and work out: 1) The only way to get away with a 4-4-2 is to have players who excel in possession; and 2) like United have gone for Kagawa to change their system, England too must make a change.
There is something quite sane about the reaction to England going out. Anger towards the manner of it makes sense but many realistically thought the quarter finals would be all this team could and should achieve. To go out at this stage having played pretty poorly throughout seems fair and I don’t think anyone could make a case for England going further. Chelsea scenarios are rare – most sides that deserve not to win, won’t win.
Somewhat surprisingly, footballing journalists on Twitter only just woke up to the tactical problems post-defeat last night, as passing stats revealed a gulf between the two sides. Hodgson shouldn’t be vilified though, he had no choice but he certainly now had time to make corrections. Roy actually should be praised – he managed to, in a very short period of time, create a unit and make a group of players seemingly happy to be around one another. As the Dutch have proven, this is so vital at tournament football.
English football won’t change overnight, grassroot tweaks take a while to be felt at the top level but as United have proven, they work. England’s World Cup 2014 qualifying group is pretty straightforward and they should be able to overcome the teams in their group playing a 4-4-2. However, it’ll be hugely important that changes are made now so that England can catch up to speed with modern football to ensure that the embarrassment of being that outplayed and clueless doesn’t repeat itself in Brazil. Learn from United’s errors and learn from United’s attempts to get around them and rectify them.