England’s starting XI remained unchanged from the side that lost 2-1 to Italy, with continuing debate on the positioning of England’s front three. Rooney started the game in the number 10 role, as Sterling moved to the right. Suarez returned for Uruguay who made five changes from opening loss to Costa Rica.
After an early period of caginess, it became evident that there was a different approach compared to England’s opener against Italy; in this game they were looking to play from the back, be patient during build up play and attempt to lure Uruguay into a press and look to play between their lines. This was different to the counter attacking style which seemed to enhance England’s best quality, speed, during the opening game, in an attempt to exploit the space soon after transition whilst also protecting the back four, which looks vulnerable when exposed. This seemed strange to change the tactics used in such a promising match, 90 minutes described by Gary Neville as “England’s best performance in 15 years”.
The early problems of this change soon became evident, with England regularly playing 6v3 in a patient attempt to play from the back. This soon left a large divide between the front four and back six, caused partially by Rooney playing too high which regularly results to hopeful long balls, but also by the double pivot being far too deep. The front three were able to disrupt England on occasions, pressing high, and forcing the aimless clearances or passing backwards. Worrying despite the obvious overload.
On occasions, Rooney dropped in attempting to help with build-up play through the thirds, but he dropped too deep, pressed hard and often played backwards or lost possession. Although Rooney’s role as a 10 in the attacking half should rarely be questioned, his role in terms of positioning in the build-up play may need some improvement, but no doubt should be helped by quicker passing and Henderson playing more advanced, helping to play out of the initial press.
The best chance of playing through this initial press was through a wide midfielder coming inside to receive it, if the next line of pressure wasn’t high enough, Welbeck and Sterling were able to receive the ball in space and turn.
This would trigger both full backs to advance, and if Rooney stayed high or looked to receive the pass, England had the best chance of success going forward. Sturridge would also move into the space beyond the wide midfielder, helping to combine in wide areas. Unfortunately this option of playing from the back wasn’t used often enough.
When England were out of possession, a deep organized structure seemed to cause no serious problems, but soon the lack of ability to deal with a negative transition became evident. Uruguay looked to play forward as soon as possible, as quick combinations and the ball in behind to Suarez was their initial thought. With both full-backs usually high, the defensive qualities of the two centre-backs and double pivot to deal with large amounts of space were tested. In the build up to the first goal, Uruguay play into Suarez, who combines with Lodeiro. After he is able to beat Gerrard relatively easy, and as soon as the double pivot is passed, a 3v4 with space to attack looks very favourable to the attackers. Following this, an individual error from Johnson – not preventing the cross – and Jagielka, not doing enough to deny Suarez the header, leads to the first goal.
In the second half, the initial five minutes consisted of constant pressure from the side in front. As England tried to build from the back, high pressure meant initial problems reoccurred, and resulted to longer passes. This was usually met by Uruguay who soon looked to move the ball forward quickly, punishing England when out of shape, their failure to deal with this pressure led to several chances. Below shows England’s shape 8 seconds after the ball is played towards the most advanced player, the lack of midfield presence alone is worrying in the 4v5 scenario, but the back four’s inability to adjust and deal with defending space allows a simple one-two between Suarez and Cavani, which results in a shot on goal. 2-0 at this point seemed likely.
England began to use Henderson and Gerrard in more advanced areas in the last half hour, helping to support the link between the back four and front four. Both were used to support full backs in wide areas as the wide midfielder looks to play inside. This helped with combination play in wide areas and resulting in several crosses including a Rooney chance. The picture below showing Gerrard advancing beyond Rooney, as both full backs provide the width.
Relying on the full backs to provide width allows England to play with five central midfielders and keeping possession in the Uruguay half becomes easier, and encourages the opposition to sit deeper. Switching play gives the full backs space frequently as the defence look to restrict combinations in the middle of the pitch. The substitutions of Lallana and Barkley for England’s starting ‘wide players’ confirms this, and the roles of Rooney and Sturridge also become more interchangeable in possession.
The goal, 15 minutes before the final whistle came as a result of these changes, as England display their biggest strength, the counter attack. Sturridge drops in more, and after beating two players is able to free Johnson, England’s now main source of width. The cross, is finished by Rooney, finally playing on Uruguay’s deepest line where he’s most effective.
In the brief period following this, England’s ball movement was much quicker. Sturridge, who’s ball retention had been poor was able to create two half chances for himself as well as being able to hold the ball up much better. Unfortunately, a shock mistake from a relatively simple clearance resulted in England conceding the second. The positioning of both centre backs will be questioned once Gerrard commits to the header.
Overall, the final result was decided on simplistic errors as well as not taking a few chances. The defensive qualities of England’s back four has been questioned, which wonders why Hodgson changed from the low block, counter attacking system which proved so many positives from their opening game. This supporting the back four with more structure whilst inviting the opposition forward and exploiting the space left, potentially England’s greatest quality. England are all but out of this year’s tournament, relying on other results, in a desperate last ditch effort to qualify.