What did we learn about England at the World Cup?
First off, the team were heavily reliant on set-pieces to create chances. There was little to no open play creativity. Some were pretty convinced the new set-up was mainly for defensive purposes. I’m convinced otherwise because Steve Holland, Gareth Southgate’s assistant, said this in a great interview with Daniel Taylor at the Guardian:
“The game against Holland in March was the first time you would have seen us play with two offensive ‘No 8s’ rather than a Livermore, for example, who’s a good player but more defence minded,” Holland says. “Nigeria was the first time we tried Dele there – the balance of him running forward, the positions Jesse was taking up and Raheem dropping short. That created problems for our opponent.”
“After [Harry Kane], where are our goals? Dele has goals for Tottenham but hasn’t yet managed to do that consistently [for England]. Raheem has goals [for Manchester City] but hasn’t quite transferred that to international level. Jesse has taken time to get goals for Manchester United. He got into great positions [against Tunisia]. Have we better scoring options in that position? I’m not sure we have. We’re going with the players we think have the potential but they’re young men with not many caps. It might just take a bit of time.”
In that same interview, Holland stated that Southgate knew the start of a qualifying campaign wasn’t the time for revolution.
Arguably, neither is the immediate run up to a World Cup tournament, but hey, they changed it. But the new look is 11 games old now. It’s been tested out for several months both with competitive matches and the rare month-long opportunity to get continuous work in on the training ground in Russia.
So at the start of another qualifying campaign, will Southgate stick, or be brave and twist? Following the tournament the England boss played growth and development bingo in his press dealings. He was talking a good game. I have my doubts he’ll walk it. Throughout his career, Southgate has been Captain Sensible, it’s almost unthinkable that he would change it up now, especially as the media and public are with him.
Perhaps more pertinently, the start of the UEFA League of Nations is upon us. The new tournament provides a potential parachute to those who don’t make it in qualifying proper for Euro 2020 – the groups for which won’t even be drawn until December 2019.
This whole new format is absolutely perfect for making important decisions about team set-up way before any matches of real importance get going. Before 2018 is done, England get to try the current system out 5 more times against good quality opposition in Spain (twice), Switzerland and Croatia (twice). Oh and the USA too.
That would be 17 games in 6 months to get things to gel in attack. If it does, great. If it doesn’t and England still can’t get those chance creation numbers up, there’s some serious evidence there to drop it and still a full year to come up with a new plan for qualifying.
The Current Set-Up
England have produced a "DNA document" that discusses their ideas behind how they want to approach how they play, and it states that:
England teams aim to regain possession intelligently, with a focus on winning the ball as early and as efficiently as possible.
The World Cup centre back trio were Kyle Walker, John Stones, Harry Maguire. None of those guys regularly play in a back 3 for their club. Jordan Pickford does not keep goal with back three in front of him at Everton. Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young have never played regularly as wing backs next to a back three at club level.
By the numbers, the teams who press the ball highest up the pitch the last two seasons are Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool.
The teams that actually do as the DNA states don’t employ a back three regularly. Mauricio Pochettino and Pep Guardiola have flirted with one on the occasional trip out, but tend to go back to a four where they know it’s comfortable. Jürgen Klopp rarely strays from his beloved back four.
The Game Strategy “How We Coach” section of the DNA states:
- Devise a specific tactical plan for each fixture
- Use recommendations and evaluation from previous fixtures and training to inform planning
After each fixture the effectiveness of the game-strategy is reviewed against individual and team objectives. The review process utilises all available data and statistics and is supported by all performance service functions.
To my eyes during the World Cup, there didn’t seem to be much evidence of tailored specific tactical plan for each fixture. England played pretty much the same way against every opponent. And unless the effectiveness review was limited to just looking at the result, the poor attacking numbers in open play available clearly didn’t inform planning to change anything.
As our own Ted Knutson pointed out on Twitter even the set-pieces weren’t changed up. Everything was knocked in to Maguire. Effective? Damn, yes. A specific tactical plan for each fixture? Nope. We flog to death what we can see works right now.
Both Southgate and Holland have shaped the team into what they know themselves: the back three, the attacking full backs. Southgate as player played a huge chunk of his career in this system. Holland in the interview states his time at Chelsea under Antonio Conte influenced his back three thinking.
At the World Cup the back three dominated possession of the ball. All three made around a hundred more passes than anyone else. The only midfielder who made more passes than Pickford was Jordan Henderson.
Guardiola re-inspired football to the extent that people were talking about him playing with ten midfielders if he could. England are effectively trying to play with one. Where is the link up from all those ballers at the back to those runners up the front?
Sorry, but I’d drop golden boy Maguire. I don’t want three at the back and I want more people in midfield. As Pep has been caught saying: “The guy is not fast”.
Stones is just about better all round and more mobile, Walker is super quick, can defend 1 v 1 and mop up Stones’ gaffs (and his own). As a bonus, with no Maguire, it means England have to come up with a new set-piece routine or two before everyone figures out how to stop it.
After Harry Kane, where are our goals?
City don’t play with two offensive ‘No 8s’, a roving forward who also comes into midfield (Sterling) and a bustling centre forward (Kane) who also loves dropping off deep to receive the ball. Nor do Liverpool. Nor do Tottenham. Why? Because it doesn’t make any sense.
Recently, how has the ball transitioned from back to front effectively for England? It hasn't. Which is why they created next to nothing and can’t score goals goals from open play even with all those ‘goals’ in the line up. Coincidentally the ‘transition’ part of the DNA document in the ‘How we play’ section is one of the shortest. There’s more mention of goalkeepers in it than midfielders.
The top clubs playing the pressing game tend to use if not one playmaker, then two, or if none at all, then an entire central midfield at ease with having the ball 60 times a game each. Both their defences AND midfield dominate the ball.
Back to the DNA document:
The game-strategy is a tactical plan based on the availability of players.
Let’s be honest. England don’t have a playmaker like Eriksen, De Bruyne or Silva.
So let’s look at Liverpool as an example. Once Coutinho had gone, they didn’t have a traditional playmaker either. They played Henderson, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum. None are world beaters. But with the right coaching all are comfortable in possession, working the ball, feeding the more talented players, and pressing the ball. They got to a Champions League Final and were part of a team in the Premier League who boasted some damn good numbers. England might have had Henderson and Milner already but for the fact the latter retired from international football two years ago. And that's a shame, for though Milner doesn’t fit the age ethos England have going right now, even to a fairly rabid non-fan like me, there is absolutely no denying it – he’s played really well for 18 months.
For me, that means Fabian Delph should come in. He ticks all of the pressing, physicality and ball possession boxes. He also adds some left footed balance to midfield. Can England find someone to do something like Wijnaldum does? If you look at the Dutchman’s passing patterns and volumes, then yes, and he already played for England at the World Cup. Eric Dier!
The groans are audible, people. Shut up for a minute. Does Dier play for a pressing side? Yep. Does he fit the age profile we want right now? Yep. If you don’t like him then there’s a younger model on the numbers and his name his Harry Winks. Does he play for a pressi…you get the idea. But forget Winks, let’s stick with Dier for now.
We’re balancing up the Dier groans with some yays because Young would be gone for me. He is nowhere near a left back that you’d want in a pressing team, who works solidly for 90 mins like, well…Kieran Trippier. Do we have a player who’s played left back for a pressing team, who’s comfortable on the ball, who gets forward? Yes! Two of them were in England’s World Cup Squad! Fabian Delph would fit the bill, but we're using him in midfield so welcome Danny Rose.
That leaves us trying to replicate Liverpool’s front three in some way. First up let's look to the sides, can we find a Sadio Mané and a Mohamed Salah? Wide forwards, great pace, ball carrying skills, ability to get into good areas in the box. Raheem Sterling does that for City. Every week. Does he play for a pressi…you get the idea…
After that we’re struggling a bit for direct replacements in wide positions. Sterling is more like Salah than Mané. So who can match Mané’s pace, intelligent, well-timed runs in wide areas and ability to get in the box for goal scoring opportunities? For me, it’s Jamie Vardy. He hasn’t got Mané’s eye for a pass but he brings everything else to the table. However, Vardy retired from international football so that brings us to Marcus Rashford. He is a lot younger, nicer(!), and is more effective at carrying the ball.
That leaves someone for the Roberto Firmino false nine-ish role. Without much forward dynamism in midfield, the player here has to be mobile. Do we have someone that loves to dart back and forth between midfield and the box? Someone who can create and score goals? Plays for a pressing team? Step forward Dele! Yep, I’ve just dropped Maguire AND Harry Kane.
With the likes of Kane coming in you could go for a more orthodox front three. There’s a lot of diverse young forward talent making strides in the Premier League right now to add in too. At the back, Maguire for Stones is not really a problem either. There’s seemingly never been more young English defenders playing regularly at top level than right now. Identifying these contenders is for another article. For now, the shapes all make sense and the players make sense. Well, to me at least.
Can England become a genuinely good team with sustainable ideas that fit their published ethos? For me, there are loads of options to make numerous variations of 4-3-3 work where England should be able to join it all up more effectively - dominate possession of the ball in BOTH the first two thirds AND press effectively from the middle third onwards – all the while posting good underlying numbers at both ends of the field.