Spain U21s 1-1 England U21s – Match Report
A controversial goal apiece for the England and Spain ensured an uneven match ended in a draw after Danny Welbeck’s late equaliser. Spain lined up in a standard 4-3-3, with the deep-lying anchorman Javi Martínez sitting deep and allowing the attack-minded full-backs, Martín Montoya and Dídac Vilà, up the pitch. Ander Herrera and Thiago Alcântara took turns to create from behind the strikers and from deep, and Jeffrén Suárez and Juan Mata switched flanks behind Deportivo’s pacey striker Adrián. England set out in a 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 cross, with the former being more accurate. Surprise starter Michael Mancienne played deep with Jordan Henderson his slightly more advanced midfield partner. Danny Rose stayed wide on the left and Tom Cleverley came in from the right to link with the Dannys Welbeck and Sturridge, the former playing ‘around’ the latter.
It would be easy to write this game off as English luck salvaging a point from a vastly superior Spanish team, and indeed the figures make grim reading for Stuart Pearce. Within the first 25 minutes, Spain had 65% of possession. Martínez, playing a similar role to Sergio Busquets for the senior side in dropping deep to collect the ball from his centre-backs before setting a tempo with his passing, was utterly untroubled: all of his 24 attempted passes in the first 25 minutes found their target. Spain had a clear technical advantage, and England’s pressing was slow and disjointed, allowing La Rojita all the time they needed to create. That said, the Spanish struggled to create clear-cut chances and even more to put them away, and it was from a corner (oddly, considering that this is meant to be one of the traditional strengths of the power-based game England are struggling to shed themselves of) that they finally went ahead. Some clever corner tricks paid off for Spain, with Alberto Botía blocking off Mancienne to allow Martínez a free header. The captain’s header was going wide until Ander Herrera ghosted in at the back post to header (though replays showed a handball) past a helpless Frank Fielding.
Spain were brave in possession, their centre-backs playing extremely wide and allowing their full-backs up the pitch. With Martínez dropping deep between them to guard against swift counterattacks and allow for easier distribution, Spain were relatively untroubled. The perennial problem of playing Spain after conceding early was painfully evident. With the ‘Tiki-Taka’ style Spain play, it is dangerous enough offensively, but also excellent defensively: if you can’t get the ball off the opposition, you can’t score, and such was the position England found themselves in.
England’s shape unbalanced
England’s poor first half performance could be put down to a number of factors – lack of a true playmaker, technical inferiority – but their general lack of compactness was particularly worrying. One suspects that a major reason for Stuart Pearce choosing a 4-2-3-1 (as opposed to a 4-3-3) for England was the double pivot, two players who would stay deep and deny Spain space in between the lines, but Henderson and Mancienne failed to stick close to each other. This could be partially attributable to their naturally different mentalities, with Mancienne normally a defender and Henderson a more attacking, driving player.
Spain’s build-up was interesting: unlike the senior team, their play seemed to focus on the wings high up the pitch. Whereas the senior team has at times found width its problem, this U21s team was more than happy to go wide. This may have been both deliberate and forced: Mata and Jeffren, the Spanish wide players, are two of Spain’s best players and the team looked to release them at every opportunity, but it could be argued that the talented England centre-backs (Chris Smalling in particular had an excellent game) coupled with the defensive vulnerabilities of Ryan Bertrand and in particular Kyle Walker (as predicted), meant that Spain found the wide areas easier to play through. In the centre of midfield Ander and Thiago were having excellent games, and the highly-rated Thiago completed 52 passes in the first half alone, more than any other player.
England didn’t help their cause by being sloppy in their general play, hounded into mistakes by heavy Spanish pressing. As the half came to a close however, they began to clean up their act, with some promising positions being worked through intricate passing. This culminated with Sturridge testing De Gea, who saved well. On 68 minutes, Pearce made his first changes: the disappointing pair of Danny Rose and Michael Mancienne were removed, with Henri Lansbury and Jack Rodwell coming on for each respectively. With both good technical players, England were able to compete better in the centre of midfield, and linked up better as well as keeping it tighter between the lines. That said, Spain were still in the ascendancy, and England’s threat came mostly from quick breaks. Lansbury played narrower and Rodwell slightly higher, more in line with Henderson, and the added tightness in midfield meant that whilst England were still being outplayed, they could play less ambitious, more retentive passing in the centre of the pitch when they did win the ball.
Late equaliser and conclusions
Eventually however, Spain’s inability to kill off the game cost them: Kyle Walker, showing the positive side of his game, charged down the right in one of his trademark runs before cutting inside and feeding a marginally offside Danny Welbeck. The United frontman controlled the ball and slid the ball past David De Gea in the Spain goal. England will go away happy with the result, but worried at being outplayed by a much superior Spain side. Some odd choices by Pearce were not vindicated: the use of Michael Mancienne, a defender, in the holding role ahead of specialists like Rodwell and the experienced Fabrice Muamba was bizarre. The strength of England’s front four has been their versatility and fluidity in the build-up to this competition, and so the inclusion of Danny Rose ahead of players like Scott Sinclair, Lansbury and Marc Albrighton was confusing to say the least, given that he is a strict left winger (unlike the other three). It may be that Rose, with his defensive discipline and experience of playing at left-back for Tottenham towards the end of the season, was meant to be tracking the runs of Spain’s Dani Alves-esque right-back, Martín Montoya. In this he did fairly well, but his crossing was inconsistent and he offered little attacking threat. There were positives: England’s centre-back pairing were both brilliant, and Rodwell looked assured in possession when he came on. Likewise, Welbeck took his goal well, and the Young Lions look like they could do well in this tournament.
Spain, on the other hand, will be disappointed they didn’t take three points from a game they dominated, but there was plenty of promise. Ander and Thiago’s ball-playing was superb, and in following the senior team’s model (roughly, as the senior side play more of a 4-2-3-1) they ensure the players remain familiar with the formation. Montoya, Martinez, and both Jeffren and Mata enhanced their reputations, and a goal from a corner would have been as satisfying as the lack of a clinical edge frustrating. Spain still remain favourites for the tournament however, and it is easy to see why.