What next for England tactically?

June 27 2010, Bloemfontein, South Africa

It took all of 70 minutes for a once-proud bastion of English footballing tradition to be ripped to pieces. A hapless England team were destroyed 4-1 by a rampant Germany, the latter playing in a modern and fluid 4-2-3-1. As the English players pushed forward in search of a goal, systematic counterattacking tore them to pieces as Germany’s players, led by the brilliant Mesut Oezil, put four past a helpless David James. Time and again Oezil, Thomas Muller and Lukas Podolski found space between the lines of the English 4-4-2 as the pedestrian Gareth Barry was neither deep enough nor mobile enough to properly screen the back four. The English system, relying on an age-old idea of one nominally defensive midfielder and one nominally attacking midfielder, resulted in the midfield being simply too high up the pitch in relation to the defence, and the bright young German stars took full advantage.

Fast forward a little less than nine months…

March 28 2011, Cardiff, United Kingdom

It took less than 45 minutes for England to take control of the game against Wales in the European Qualifiers. England’s interchanges were quick, slick, and clever, and their pressing ferocious. The newly-implemented 4-3-3 formation pushed Wales back and gave their star man, Aaron Ramsey, no room at all. Marked out of the game by England’s tenacious new holder, Scott Parker, the space between the lines was almost non-existent. England’s midfield three were fluid and understood their nominal roles perfectly, and England’s forwards ripped apart an outclassed Welsh defence and midfield. Quite the turnaround from the World Cup…

It is now, at the beginning of a whole new international cup cycle, that decisions regarding tactics and formations need to be made. Capello has been doing just that: England’s 4-3-3 against Wales and Ghana was hailed as a step in the right direction. D&C will now analyse four possible formations at Capello’s disposal.

4-3-3

England's 4-3-3, as displayed against Wales and Ghana.

Some would say that England’s current standard formation is the 4-3-3. Used to great effect against Wales and Ghana, it is argued that this formation allows England to accentuate their strengths – midfield – and reduce their weaknesses – strikers. Let’s go over the basics.

With Joe Hart in goal, two central defenders are flanked by modern, attacking full-backs. Ashley Cole, the incumbent left-back, is particularly important here; his drive, energy and all-round quality (being the only realistic candidate in the England squad for “Best in his position in the world”) is vital to England’s performance. As such, he plays a more attacking role than his right-back counterpart (usually Glen Johnson, though his spot is the weakest in the team) and provides the majority of the left-sided width. On the right, Johnson also gets forward in support of his winger.

The midfield works in its traditional fashion in a 4-3-3. With a deep-lying ball-winner (the destroyer) playing behind a calm, methodical distributor of the ball (the passer) and a more advanced, more attacking creative fulcrum (the creator), each player has his own nominal, specialised role. As others have described these roles a lot better than I, it would probably be wise to focus on England’s situation rather than spend time going over the overall situation. The destroyer in the triangle is pivotal in football today, denying the opposition space between the lines and recycling the ball to more creative players. The player that will play this role in question is up for debate, but the current frontrunner is most likely Scott Parker. A classy, driving box-to-box player for his domestic club West Ham, Parker seemingly has the intelligence and discipline required to remain in front of his back four and win the ball, as well as the technical and physical skills that most observers knew he had. The passer of the trio is another up for debate, but in place of the injured Steven Gerrard the meteoric rise of Jack Wilshere has continued. Possessing one of the surest techniques and first touch of an England player for generations as well as being mobile, tactically intelligent, versatile and a creative wonder, the still only 19 year old Wilshere is looking to nail down an England place in the same season he has nailed down a spot in one of the most talented midfields in Europe, Arsenal’s. The final piece of the puzzle is the creator; against Wales it was Lampard, who looks like he faces a straight fight with Steven Gerrard for the spot. Either way, the creator has to be the spearhead of the midfield, the player who looks to drive on to meet the forwards and play the final ball.

The attack is simpler. With two wingers on either side playing similar games, the man the whole attack revolves around is the striker. In this case, and for the foreseeable future, that striker will be Wayne Rooney. Using his exceptional intelligence and off-the-ball movement, Rooney’s movements drag the opposition defenders out of position for the wingers and creator to exploit, as well as using his own creative skills to dictate the attack. Rooney’s work rate and stamina also allow him to drop back into midfield when the side is out of possession, occupying the opposition’s deepest midfielder and preventing easy passing between midfielders. The two wingers have for England played slightly asymmetrical roles. On the left, Cole’s energy allows for a slightly more direct and tucked-in wide man that looks to link up with the striker, relying on Cole to provide the width. Ashley Young was played against Wales and Ghana to just this purpose. On the right hand side, a pure winger looks to stretch the play, staying wide before coming inside to offer a goal threat. Stewart Downing, Aaron Lennon, Theo Walcott and a whole host of others are competing for both spots.

This does look like the formation England will be persisting with for the time being. It is balanced, fluid, and provides the vital three in midfield that an international side needs to compete nowadays.

4-2-3-1

How England would line up in a theoretical 4-2-3-1.

The next possible formation for England is theoretical, as we’ve never really seen England play in a defined (as opposed to just temporary or by accident) 4-2-3-1. However, as it is the formation of choice for many international sides – Spain, Germany, Holland – it would be short-sighted not to have a go at an analysis of a theoretical England line-up in a 4-2-3-1.

The back four and goalkeeper are as we had them in the 4-3-3. However, in midfield, the passer (seen on the right of the two) is given a more dynamic role, starting in a deeper position and dictating play before getting forward to link to the attacking four (though Germany play it with the destroyer, Khedira, using his energy to link to the attackers and the passer, Schweinsteiger, keeps his position). The creator has been pushed up more or less level with the wingers, playing the traditional “Number 10” trequartista role behind the striker. These small changes have a number of knock-on effects. With the creator playing behind the striker and in a more restricted space rather than driving from deep, he needs a different set of attributes to deal with it. He needs to be physically stronger and have an extremely good first touch in order to control and keep the ball despite close attention from opposition midfielders, and doesn’t need the stamina that he would if he needed to run from deep. As a result, the position would seem to favour Steven Gerrard (who plays the position regularly for Liverpool) over Frank Lampard (who looked unconvincing to say the least when played there under Luiz Felipe Scolari). Also, with the passer playing deeper, he would in theory have more time and space on the ball to create.

The ‘double pivot’ created by the passer and destroyer’s closer proximity to each other could also shore up the defence. One of the main attractions of the 4-2-3-1 is the ‘box’ created between the centre-backs and defensive midfielders, providing a much more solid and rigid defence. On top of that, Wilshere is used to playing in a double pivot alongside Alex Song at Arsenal, and would welcome a similar role in the England set-up.

4-4-2

The 4-4-2 that England failed miserably with in South Africa.

A formation that every football fan in Britain would recognise and a staple of the English side for decades, the 4-4-2’s main attraction is its simplicity and familiarity. Unfortunately, the biggest flaw in the formation is the midfield; as with any formation with two central midfielders, it will be at a distinct disadvantage against those playing with three. A numerical disadvantage is a big one in international football, as England found to their cost in South Africa against Germany.

With a 4-4-2, the regular back four is playing behind a midfield consisting of two wide men playing  on either side of two multifunctional central midfielders. The wingers are more reserved than in a 4-3-3, providing cover to the full-backs. The two central midfielders have less defined roles than in a 4-3-3, with both responsible for attack and defence, though one is more defensive than attacking and vice-versa. This was performed in South Africa by Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry as the creator and destroyer respectively. Of the two strikers, one is generally smaller, faster and more creative; in this case, Wayne Rooney. The other is bigger, stronger, and creates space for his support striker to work in; in this case, Emile Heskey. Though the latter has now retired from international football, there are many other candidates such as Peter Crouch and Andy Carroll able to provide this kind of role.

The second striker would also have an extra role to fulfil when using a 4-4-2, that of occupying a midfielder. Throughout the qualification for South Africa, Wayne Rooney was allowed to drop deep and occupy midfielders in order to even up the discrepancy in numbers in midfield. However, during South Africa, Fabio Capello was evidently eager to try and use Rooney as a goalscorer rather than a provider (understandably, considering his best-ever goalscoring season for Manchester United) and was instructed to stay level with Heskey. As a result, any opposition that played with three central midfielders constantly had a midfielder free and with time on the ball, and England were ripped to shreds by Germany. Therefore, if playing a 4-4-2, it would be imperative to allow Rooney to use his exceptional work rate and energy to nullify an opposition midfielder.

4-6-0

A highly experimental formation, the 4-6-0 has been employed rarely and with intermittent success. However, England seem to have the personnel to make it work.

The 4-6-0 is something that has been floating around the heads of football thinkers for a while. That said, the concept has been around for a long time; the Magical Magyar Hungarian team that destroyed England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 included the enigmatic Nandor Hidegkuti, whose role as a modern-day trequartista and yet also his side’s main striker perplexed the home side to the extent that Harry Johnstone, the England centre-half (who never played another England game after that fateful day) claimed he was “utterly helpless” to stop Hidegkuti. That quote rather sums up the effectiveness of a 4-6-0: with a striker just out of arm’s reach, how does a defender mark? Either he lets the striker go free and create havoc, or follows him and leaves a huge gap in the defensive line that is easily exploited by opposition runners from midfield.

The big modern day example is Luciano Spalletti’s time with Roma, in the 2006-2007 season in particular. An injury crisis forced Spalletti into fielding Francesco Totti, a classic trequartista, as a lone striker meant that he constantly dropped deep to recieve the ball and dictate play. The opposition defenders had the above problem of not knowing whether to track him or not, and the Montenegrin Mirko Vucinic cut in from the left to exploit space constantly. As a result, they went on an 11-game winning streak. There are other examples – the Austrian Wunderteam of the 1930s, Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan side, Spalletti’s recent Zenit side, and particularly the Manchester United double winning side of 2007-08. All share the same idea of having a deep-lying ‘false nine’, a striker who looks like he is going to play as a classic striker, but instead peels off into space.

At first, this would seem an outlandish suggestion, that England could play with a 4-6-0. Indeed, Sacchi admitted that the time and training it would take for a 4-6-0 to be effectively implemented would render it ‘impossible’ for an international side to effectively play it. However, even such legends as Sacchi can be wrong, and maybe England could be the ones to prove him so. The back four which we have persisted with is retained here. Likewise, Parker or a similar destroyer would play the same role as he would in any of the other formations discussed here. In front of him two all-action midfielders would offer both in attack and defence, whilst the wingers would play narrower and look to make outside-to-in runs, cutting inside beyond the striker. The critical person in all of this is the striker, Rooney, who would drop deep and draw defenders out of position for the runners to exploit, before rejoining the attack from deep.

The key problem with the formation aside from the training and time required to implement it is width; the full-backs would be required to provide much of the width due to the tucked-in nature of the wingers. It also requires extraordinarily fit and hard-working players, though England have never been short of athletic and industrious footballers. It could be possible, then, for the unusual 4-6-0 to be implemented, though very unlikely. As it is, it is likely that the 4-3-3 will be retained, which will come as a relief to many football pundits and fans across the nation desperate to see England playing a more modern, fluid and progressive brand of football.

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