The Cup Running Over

June 2, 2010 7:08 AM

US Opponent Watch: Why England Needs A Tactical Makeover

England's recent 3-1 victory over Mexico was an extremely flattering result. England chased the ball for much of the game, out-passed and out-paced by a technically superior Mexico side, and owed their victory primarily to Peter Crouch's height advantage over a small Mexican back line and Carlos Vela's woeful finishing (he is capable of better and will have to step up in South Africa if Mexico is to advance). If England is truly to be a title contender, a comprehensive tactical re-think is needed.

Currently England lines up in a slightly modified 4-4-2, with a traditional back four and Steven Gerrard playing a more central role as a left-winger.
Because of Aaron Lennon's pace, the right-sided midfielder tends to play extremely wide, with two central midfielders sitting deep, traditionally Frank Lampard and one other (the spot is really up for grabs). Wayne Rooney will of course start as a striker, and in qualification played deeper behind either Crouch or Emile Heskey as a target-man.

Although this formation was effective against mediocre opposition in qualifying, any top-class side will likely cut the defense wide-open. Although much ink has been spilled by us and others on England's second-striker worries and goalkeeping concerns, perhaps the biggest problem for England right now is the lack of a decent dedicated defensive midfielder since Owen Hargreave's injury. Although Lampard wasn't playing against Mexico, he is much more suited to a forward midfield role than the central role he has occupied for England, and Michael Carrick combining in the middle with the much hyped James Milner on Monday didn't work at all. Mexico created several excellent chances by playing balls from the center of the park out wide to on-rushing wingers (only the dreadful shooting of Vela and a few lucky saves by Robert Green prevented Mexico from winning).

Because of this deficiency, England would do well to play two dedicated deep central midfielders, both of whom play centrally for their club. The obvious choice would be for Carrick to start alongside Gareth Barry, where Carrick's excellent defensive positioning would allow Barry to get slightly more forward and spread play from a very deep-lying playmaker position. In the current 4-4-2 this would push Lampard out of the side, which is of course not an option.

The clear tactical answer is to play Carrick and Barry together in a 4-3-3. With both of the holding midfielders staying back, Lampard could occupy a much more advanced playmaker role behind the strikers - - the position he favors at Chelsea. Gerrard would be forced to play a left sided attacking role in a front three, which would only necessitate his playing slightly more forward than he does for England currently. As Zonal Marking notes, Gerrard would be grossly out of position, but no more so than he is playing as a left-winger already. The third attacker would be Lennon, who is more than comfortable playing as a winger-forward. The lack of midfield wingers would give Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson real license to bomb forward, and would add a fantastic amount of bite to the attack.

If England remains as tactically rigid as it has been in the past, it isn't going anywhere at the World Cup. (Courtesy -- Zambio)

However, the issue is not whether England has the personnel to pull off a 4-3-3 (they do), but whether the team is psychologically prepared for such a momentous tactical change. As Jonathan Wilson has noted, England is notoriously rigid in their formations, and have extreme difficulty playing in anything other than a 4-4-2. England's embarrassing loss against Croatia that kept them from Euro 2008 was widely put down to Steve McClaren's decision to play an unfamiliar 3-5-2, but in fact against Croatia's two traditional strikers, it was the correct tactical decision. England simply couldn't adapt. Thus, as usual, England's downfall will likely not be down to the strength of its squad, but to its tactical rigidity, its refusal to adapt to anything new. For all his tactical acumen, even Fabio Capello may not be able to tinker his way out of that.

Steven and Harrison Stark are the co-authors of World Cup 2010: The Indispensable Guide to Soccer and Geopolitics, recently published by Blue River Press. They are analyzing the World Cup for Real Clear Sports.

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