Note: As usual, this is way too long, and probably boring. But I wanted to be comprehensive, and give more than “The US needs to stop Rooney.” This is meant as a look at the England attack, not necessarily as a preview of June 12th. Finally, though this is quite different, it still stands on the shoulders of what Jonathan Wilson and Zonal Marking have written. Hope you enjoy.
Rooney. Gerrard. Lampard. Ferdinand. The names haven’t changed since England lost their only competitive match at Wembley two years ago, crumpling against Croatia in the rain. The result left them out of Euro 2008, sealing Steve McLaren’s fate in the process. Since then, however, the squad has undergone nothing short of a transformation, due in no small part to Fabio Capello, the celebrated Italian manager making his first foray into the international game.
Beyond repairing the squad’s damaged psyche in the summer of 2008, Capello inherited a side that was fraught with tactical dilemma. First and foremost, he needed to solve the puzzle in midfield, conjuring a solution that would allow for Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard to co-exist. Second, he needed to fully harness the mercurial talent of Wayne Rooney, a matter that had less to do with Rooney himself than it did with finding an ideal partner up front.
With Capello pondering the issues that had lingered for nearly six years, England could find solace in a relatively mild qualifying group (Croatia and Ukraine being the competition of note, supplemented by Andorra, Belarus and Kazakhstan). To their credit, they left very little to the imagination, dropping points only in Kiev, where an experimental lineup took the pitch against the Ukrainians with qualification having been secured. In a dose of irony fit for a London stage, England announced its re-arrival in European with an annihilation of the same Croatia team—in Zagreb, no less—that had caused so much pain just a year prior.
Tactically, Capello’s great innovation was advertised as sending Gerrard out to the left wing, leaving Lampard back in the center of midfield. The truth, however, is that he simply took the reigns off the Liverpool man. While Gerrard offers an array of talents, positional discipline has never been mistaken for one. It’s not a slight—there are only a handful of players in the world that possess his ability to find dangerous positions across the pitch.
While starting on the left side, Gerrard was given the freedom to roam throughout the final third of the pitch, interchanging mainly with Wayne Rooney in the middle. Lampard took on the role of a deep-lying playmaker, partnering alongside Gareth Barry, who assumed the holding midfield role.
With Gerrard secured on the left side, Capello focused his attention on the front line—specifically, how to get the best out of Wayne Rooney. The fundamental issue was whether to partner Rooney with another forward at the top, or play with a sole striker, allowing Rooney to drop back further towards the midfield. On top of it all, Capello needed to determine who the second forward should be, picking from a lot that included Emile Heskey, Jermaine Defoe and Peter Crouch. With the problem unsolved, Cappello continued to tinker with the lineup and formation throughout the campaign.
With Gerrard missing from the first handful of qualifiers due to injury, England lined up in a 4-4-2 against Andorra and Croatia, only to evolve into a 4-3-3 against Kazakhstan. It was only against Belarus in October that Gerrard, now recovered, made his debut on the left. A temporary modification to a 4-2-3-1 resulted in a stuttering victory over Ukraine at Wembley in April, with Rooney dropping back to play centrally, complemented by Walcott/Lennon to his right and Gerrard to his left.
So it would be for England during the remaining qualifiers and friendlies, with Capello never quite settling on a preferred option. The man who best partnered with Rooney was Heskey, who created space, linked well, and occupied defenders, allowing Rooney and Gerrard to thrive. Yet the big man offers little in the way of scoring, having notched just 7 goals in 58 games for England.
Conversely, Jermaine Defoe and Peter Crouch were far more dangerous in front of goal, but their styles weren’t conducive to playing a complementary, workmanlike role. Further muddying the waters was Heskey’s inability to crack the starting XI in a mediocre Aston Villa side, leading to questions about form and fitness.
By and large, England looked at it’s best in the 4-4-2, with Rooney and Heskey pairing together up top, and games were consistently put out of reach before the hour mark. The formation was also showcased in, arguably, their finest team effort in years, the 5-1 demolition of Croatia at Wembley that assured qualification. The 4-2-3-1, by contrast, produced a stuttering win over Ukraine at Wembley, secured through a John Terry header on 85 minutes, along with wins over group doormats Andorra and Kazakhstan, and the lone loss, away to Ukraine.
Ironically, the team selection changed very little, regardless of the formation. It’s also curious that Rooney’s tendency to drop back to receive the ball often made it appear that England were in a 4-2-3-1 anyways. Yet all the analysis in the world could do little to change the reality that England were simply more fluid with Rooney and Heskey together up top.
As England close in on June 12th, Capello has yet to settle the issue definitively. Does he send Heskey out, knowing that Rooney is at his best with the rugged target man by his side? Or does he call on Crouch or Defoe, who play very different roles, but at least offer the viable scoring threat that Heskey lacks. It seems likely that the lumbering Heskey will get the call against the United States, with Crouch and Defoe the likely options off the bench if goals are needed.
Key Factors & Flow of Play
For all the talk about Capello’s dilemmas, however, England ran ram shod through the competition in qualifying, putting in 34 goals in ten games—tops in Europe (compared to the 24 goals in 12 games during the Euro 2008 qualifying round). The newfound offensive fluidity hinges on three main factors:
Rooney – His ability to find the back of the net is perhaps surpassed by his indomitable spirit and determination to simply outwork everyone else on the pitch. Like Gerrard, he seems to pop up everywhere, usually at the precisely the right moment. Perhaps the greatest testament to his to his importance is the simple fact that Emile Heskey found his way to South Africa. Though flexible, he tends to drift between the left touchline and the center of the pitch, and feasted throughout qualifying on balls played in from the right side.
The Gerrard/Lampard Axis – While neither is in their preferred position, Capello has at least found roles for both that from which they can be individually effective, certainly to a far greater extent than when they were paired together at the heart of midfield. That partnership appeared to leave them unsure of assignments, with their mutual strengths more often stifling than complementing one another. While the underrated Lampard lurks in a deeper lying position, Gerrard serves as the quarterback, starting from his spot out wide before moving in to link with Rooney.
The Flanks – If you’re searching for an unlikely hero for England come Saturday, look no further then Glen Johnson. Johnson and Ashley Cole, the left back, have terrorized opposing defenses from the wings. Far more than simply moving past the centerline, they attack the 18-yard box, often appearing in the spots you’d expect to see the wide midfielders. It’s often Johnson who has one of the final touches on the ball before an England goal, and with he and Aaron Lennon combining on the right wing, Carlos Bocanegra will have his hands full.
If specific questions regarding the frontline remain, the English offense has by and large settled on a defined shape and motion. As opposed to years past, when the attack was forced up the middle to accompany Gerrard and Lampard (going out wide only to find David Beckham), the offense now moves through Gerrard on the left, who typically receives the ball tucked just inside of the left touchline.
From here, Gerrard is presented with three main options. With the aforementioned Cole marauding forward from his position in defense, Gerrard can play the overlap, leaving Cole to charge towards the right back before playing a ball in (causing, as Jonathan Wilson notes, England to be left with an asymmetrical shape). Towards the middle of the pitch, Gerrard can link with Rooney, who tends to drop quite deep at the beginning of possession. His final option is to switch the field to either Johnson or Lennon on the right side.
When the ball is played to Cole, Gerrard will stay on the left side, drifting to the corner of the 18-yard box. Played to Rooney, and Gerrard will look for space centrally. If it’s Lennon or Johnson that he picks out, he’ll start to lurk towards the net, inevitably arriving at the back post, with Rooney in the middle and Heskey off ensuring he simply doesn’t get in the way.
Once the offense has moved to the right side, the action truly begins. It’s not just the ability of Cole and Johnson to be involved in the offensive build-up that makes them dangerous—it’s that they have the confidence, skill, and encouragement to attack in the final third. It’s rare to see either whip a ball into the box from the far touchline. Instead, they look to take the ball to the edge of the box and pick out one of Rooney, Gerrard, or Lampard coming from deep. Time and time again, the play unfolds in this manner, and the result is a tremendous amount of pressure on the fullbacks and wing defenders.
Let’s look at the match versus Croatia at Wembley. In the first image, Gerrard receives the ball on the left side. Ashley Cole, in the red circle, immediately takes off down the sideline, presenting Gerrard with his first option. Instead, he crosses over to Johnson.
The second image is of a similar play minutes later. Rooney has tracked back to link up, with Heskey wandering wide. Gerrard again sends it wide to Lennon. You can see Rooney and Heskey immediately starting their runs into the box, with Gerrard to shortly follow in the third frame. Lennon picks out Gerrard at the far post, and its 2-0 England after 14 minutes.
The next image, taken from the destruction of Andorra, shows England perfectly lined up for a Johnson cross into the box. Once again, the play came from Gerrard on the left, through Lennon. Rooney makes his run, Johnson puts in a perfect ball, and Rooney puts in his second.
The constant switching from side to side often leaves the middle of the pitch exposed, where Lampard and Barry can move from the back and put themselves in dangerous spots just outside the box. The last image is what the England offense, early on in possession, will look like against the (likely) American defense. I’ve taken a few liberties with Edu and Holden in the lineup, but the names don’t much matter.
It seems silly to think that on a star-studded lineup, it’s Glen Johnson and Aaron Lennon that could provide the difference. And yet, they just may. I’ve included a few more diagrams of the typical English attack, since the screen images from games can be difficult to see.
Please enjoy, and if you have comments, let me know!