How To Beat England, Pt. 1
While the romantics amongst us would love to see the United States take three points from England on Saturday, surely some measure of realism is in order. One point will put the Americans on a very favorable track to advance out of the group. There is grave danger in leaving Rustenburg empty handed, however, with the well-organized Slovenians and unpredictable Algerians on the horizon. You can expect a prudent, pragmatic approach to Bob Bradley, which the fellas over at Shinguardian accurately described as a ploy to “steal” the game.
Forget about England’s lackluster performances in the warm-up matches. With a team that’s lost so much to injury already, its unreasonable to expect any of the regulars risking harm for a run out against Japan, much less a South African club side. England, after all, led Europe in goals during qualifying, putting no fewer than nine past Croatia over the course of their two meetings. They are dangerous, and they’ll be ready.
The reality is, the United States won’t hold England to a clean sheet, not with the questions surrounding the back line. They can, however, take steps to minimize the quality chances for the Three Lions, while still taking advantage of England’s defensive vulnerabilities with a counterattack. To that end, I see six defensive keys for Bob Bradley’s men on Saturday, if they hope to escape with points (offensive keys will come tomorrow):
(Preemptive note: When ESPN inevitably shows the “Keys to the Game” graphic that has “Stop Wayne Rooney,” just chuckle for me. Really, it’s the least you can do.)
1. Shut down the right flank – It is difficult to stress just how important the right flank is to the English attack. If you’d like some visual evidence, check below for a YouTube link, with some short descriptions. The combination of Aaron Lennon and Glen Johnson provided the service for many of England’s goals during the qualifying campaign, and there’s every reason to expect the same in South Africa.
Lennon’s strength is his speed, while his fearlessness in taking on defenders were a main factor in his promotion over Theo Walcott for the starting nod. Though his touch can still desert him at times, his delivery has vastly improved over the last two years. With the ball at his feet, it’s a near lock that he’ll take it directly to the corner of the box, before picking out Rooney, Gerrard, or Lampard charging towards the net.
Coming from the right back position, Glen Johnson possesses enough speed and quickness to frighten the most seasoned of defenders, with his ball skills creating very real match-up problems in the final third of the pitch. He and Lennon have become adept at utilizing space, and at times, it can be confusing for an observer to tell just which is the defender and which is the winger. His footwork is exceptional, and he has a deft touch that makes him effective around the box and down to the end line.
So, how do you stop them? With Lennon, Carlos Bocanegra would do well to force him outside, or down towards the end line. Lennon creates problems cutting in towards goal—his effectiveness can be mitigated when he’s pushed out wide and forced to cross in from deep. Furthermore, don’t foul him. It’s an oversimplification to say he’s looking only to cross/chip the ball or draw a penalty in the box, but he’s not a winger who’s looking to shoot. You can play a step off and still be in position to block a cross. DeMerit, Bocanegra, and Gooch need to keep their arms down, and shouldn’t bother trying to take the ball away from him in the box. Get in front of him and limit his options—don’t overstretch and let him draw contact. Lennon will go down in a heap without much provocation.
Stopping Johnson means getting back and preventing him the space 30-40 yards from the box where he typically receives the ball from Gerrard, Lampard or Milner. While his footwork can be wonderful, his role with England isn’t to take on a defender so far from the box—and if he does, it means that England’s real creators are not. Dempsey will be fine covering on the left side. Good hustle can contain Johnson—you don’t need blazing speed to track back with him.
– The very first highlight? Aaron Lennon receives the ball on the right flank, cuts in, and is fouled in the box. Penalty. 1-0 England.
– Scroll to the 1:00 minute mark. Gerrard with the ball in the center. He plays over to Lennon, who cuts to the edge of the 18-yard box. Gerrard makes the run to the back post, Lennon sends a lovely ball in. 2-0 England. 14 minutes, two goals, all from Lennon on the right side. And yet, there’s more…
– Scroll to the 2:00 mark. Lennon is fouled, but instead of stopping play, Gareth Barry sends a quick ball to Glen Johnson on the right. And yes, that is the right back playing 20 yards from the Croatia end line (see, I’m getting somewhere). After some nifty footwork, Johnson takes it down to the end line, where he plays a gorgeous ball for Lampard, who is unmarked in the box. 3-0 England, all down the right side. (Note: Croatia changed their formation after the second goal in an effort to shore up support on the left side of the defense. Needless to say, they failed).
– Scroll to the 3:08 mark. Another ball down the right, this time it’s Rooney playing the chip, and Gerrard heading home. (I’ve already discussed the need to track Gerrard into the area in the earlier post about England).
If you’re still not convinced about the need to shut down England’s right side, you’d do well to look up the clips of the Andorra, Kazakhstan and Ukraine qualifiers. Yes, Milner on the left will give England more width on the opposite wing, but don’t expect them to completely change their formula. The right side will be crucial. (BTW, if anyone as any video edit skills and some free time, send me an email).
2. Protect the Middle – The Gerrard-Lampard axis, should it be renewed on Saturday, will place even greater importance on the roles of Michael Bradley and his midfield partner. I would expect Gerrard to play left of center, diagonally behind James Milner, who will be stationed on the wing. Lampard will stay right, offering further cover to Glen Johnson and Ledley King. The England attack will still (generally) move from left to right, stretching the defense in the process. Bradley and Clark/Edu must protect the space outside the box, and limit chances for the England midfield. Gerrard, Lampard and Rooney are deadly running up the middle, and with James Milner cutting in from the left, it is a huge danger zone.
3. Press – The concept of pressing is relatively straightforward. To make it work, however, you need a supremely fit and committed team. The American midfield and forward lines, regardless of their composition, must be prepared to press the English playmakers.
To put it simply: Gerrard and Lampard can’t be given time to dictate the offense; Milner and Lennon shouldn’t be granted the space to attack from the wings; and Cole and Johnson need to be denied the opportunity to put balls into the box, setting the table for Rooney. With Gerrard and Lampard in the middle, the English attack will start a bit further back than they would if Gerrard was on the wing. Donovan and Dempsey must get back quickly, helping to clog the middle of the field and preventing England from setting up.
4. Let Heskey roam – Don’t allow Emile Heskey to stretch the defense. His job is to create space for Rooney and Gerrard. He tries to occupy both center backs, or drift out to the edge of the box and pull one with him. The US would do well to simply let him be. He offers very little in the way of a scoring threat, and is harmless away from goal. They cannot be over-aggressive and foul him 30 yards from the goal (I’m look at you, Clark and DeMerit), and should not chase him into the corners. (Note: If Crouch or Defoe takes his spot, the equation changes considerably)
5. Avoid fouls – This point is obvious, but it needs to be stated, for all of the reasons listed above. Silly fouls have hurt the United States in big games (see: Clark, Rico; Bradley, Michael; and Mastroeni, Pablo), and they could do so again. With the vulnerability the United States has shown on set pieces, Lampard’s proficiency on free kicks, and the uncertain nature of the new ball, fouls could prove deadly against the English.
6. Don’t worry about Crouch’s head – If England needs a late goal, you can count on seeing Peter Crouch or Jermaine Defoe. Time and time again, Crouch has come on to find the back of the net for England, adding to his remarkable tally of 19 strikes in ??? games for his country. Yet for a man who stands 6’7”, he threatens far more with his feet than he does with his head. DeMerit and Onyewu shouldn’t play off of him under the assumption that he’s simply aiming to jump and meet a lofted pass. He’s far more likely to beat you by streaking in towards the net, firing in a low cross or a rebound. Get in front of him, and watch for low balls.
If the United States can successfully implement these six keys defensively, they’ll have a fighting chance. Please feel free to share your thoughts below–would love some alternative opinions. I’ll have the offensive keys tomorrow.