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England WC Qualifiers: Tactical Analysis | Gerrard as DM & Barkley Introduced

England made it 8 games unbeaten under Roy Hodgson against Moldova and Ukraine in a routine 4-0 win at Wembley in which 3 points were crucial, and a bland 0-0 draw on Tuesday night, keeping up the pressure on Ukraine and Montenegro at the top of group H. Although it is too easy to keep with the modern trend and moan about the state of the national team, it must be admitted there will be a few areas of concern which will surely need to be addressed in the long term, if not before the World Cup when we look back at the last two games.


Injuries for Wayne Rooney, Glen Johnson and Daniel Sturridge prevented England from fielding a full strength side against Moldova (arguably the inclusion of Leighton Baines and Michael Carrick would have provided just as  strong a line-up). The suspension of Danny Welbeck for the Ukraine game led to the inclusion of James Milner on the left, as he was chosen ahead of Sterling, Townsend and Young.


Roy Hodgson has attracted his fair share of critics since gaining the England job, with his previous exploits demonstrating his preference for a rigid 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 formation with out-and-out wingers and two central midfielders. His stance has seemed to have loosened however, and he has shown he is not afraid to play a 4-3-3  with the central midfield rotating in possession, collapsing in front of the back four out of possession and using two wide players who are far more attacking than defensive.

In the case of Friday, the chosen three were Gerrard playing deepest, Lampard slightly higher to the right, then Jack Wilshere roaming further forwards but also dropping into the spaces left by Gerrard and Lampard when they chose to push forward. Wilshere does contribute towards a fluid midfield when England do keep the ball (rare I know), beating his man and moving forward quickly with the ball at the right times, a decent balance of patience and directness. However, it is unclear whether anyone has established the type of role Wilshere will go on to fill, largely posing the same problems as Lampard and Gerrard as the general ‘all-round’ midfielder. It would be good for us to find out his exact tactical function in the team, and see him settle there, as opposed to switching him between attacking and holding midfield game by game just because ‘he can do that’. I would say there is currently a lack of identity for all three of our midfielders in relation to the tactical side of the game.

Gerrard Holding

The question that even Steven Gerrard knows the answer to is whether or not he can play the role of the deepest lying midfielder. Sure, you can put him there. No damage was done this week, with a clean sheet in both games. But this, to me, was Hodgson not wanting to upset the captain, Lampard, or Wilshere by leaving one of them out. Michael Carrick is the obvious option for that position, and perhaps this will be considered against stronger teams, however just as Brendan Rodgers recognises at Liverpool, and confirmed when we saw Gerrard popping up for his goal on Friday, the disciplined, more subtle holding role is just not in his make-up. I am not suggesting holding midfielders are incapable of scoring goals, but just that their position on the field always has to be relative to where potential danger and passing lanes are for the opposition, rather than acting on attacking instinct as Gerrard does (and does so well).

New Additions

Ross Barkley’s introduction to the national team has offered another bright hope, and perhaps we can start to produce more players like him on a regular basis. He has so far this season shown a maturity beyond his years both on and off the ball, elegance, a tidy touch not dissimilar to Wayne Rooney’s, while he is also confident and comfortable under pressure, a trait we have seen lacking in the archetypal English player over the years. During the last half hour of the Moldova game he stayed high in the midfield looking for space to play, initiated attacks, particularly midway through the second half, receiving on the half-turn and playing forwards quickly with purpose, leading to a chance for Welbeck. On the subject of new faces. it is also a relief that England can look forward to the future introductions of Raheem Sterling, Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend, who can all offer competition for places and a different dimension going forwards. Of those three, Sterling in particular looks extremely polished technically and tactically for his age (surprisingly far ahead in his development), where players like Walcott at a similar age suffered in both of these areas, while Zaha and Townsend edge more towards the side of ‘raw’ talent with some potential tactical flaws (despite both being very technical players).

Playing for the Draw

Against Ukraine, the England team looked as though they were feeling the pressure. It was difficult to tell what they were playing for, firstly because if they were going for the win, it is arguable that James Milner would not have started the game. He is a reliable (most of the time) defensive player to have in a wide position and serves the purpose of ‘protecting what you have’. It is probably fair to say that most England fans were distraught to see him starting, as once again we changed our tactics to prevent another team from hurting us, rather than being confident, proactive and letting other teams change their tactics for us (the change of personnel was forced, the change of tactics wasn’t).

My next question is that if England were playing for the draw, why didn’t the tempo and style of play seem to match up? Each spell of possession was rushed and panicked, with the ball being forced forwards with long, ‘difficult to deal with’ passes into the middle third. We kicked long from goal kicks, dumping it into Rickie Lambert, cleared hastily down the line from the full back areas and took each attack like it was the last minute of the game. The manner in which England regularly coughed up possession seemed like they didn’t actually want the ball, more comfortable without it, happier to preserve and keep the ball in front of them. An inability to string five passes in the middle or final third should be a concern regardless of your personal footballing philosophy.

The Wider Issue – Collective Identity

[quote]You shouldn’t necessarily pick the best players; you have to have a collective identity. Paul Scholes maybe hasn’t had the international career he should have. Or Michael Carrick: he makes those around him better, regardless of the fact that he’s not the one who scores the most goals, or a great tackler’ – Xabi Alonso[/quote] 

Part of England’s progression as a national team over the next decade is going to be understanding that there has to be a team identity. There can no longer be the attitude of picking the best eleven players in the country, cramming them together into the same team and saying ‘this will work’. All of the great players our country has been blessed with have served a specific purpose for their clubs, and perhaps a purpose that hasn’t always met the needs of the national team. Despite this, we continue to play the biggest names, not the best team.

Why, for example, did it take the England set-up 15 years to understand the importance of Paul Scholes long after the peak of his career? Why were the people in charge suddenly nodding their heads in agreement with their tongues hanging out at what a player he was when it was too little too late? The same can be said of Michael Carrick, who has only began to gain recognition in the last couple of seasons; his style of play isn’t necessarily glamourous, but if you think Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard can patrol the space in front of the back four and break the midfield lines with his intelligence and discipline you need your head looked at. Again, each player serves a purpose, and three players who all do the same thing is not fit for purpose.

There are many fantastic websites and articles discussing these national team issues further which make for very interesting reading, but in the meantime Hodgson will view this as a positive international break. England now look increasingly likely to secure their trip to Brazil next summer, but what is extremely evident is the room for improvement both on and off the field.

Gabriel Jones
Gabriel Jones
Liverpool fan and passionate football coach!
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