Stars and Gripes

Occasionally interesting insight (and gripes) about the USMNT

How To Beat England, Pt. 2

with 2 comments

Following our tactical look at England, yesterday we examined what could be done to neutralize the Three Lions’ attack, with a particular focus on the flank play of Cole and Johnson, and the danger presented by Gerrard and Lampard through the middle (oh, and ignoring Emile Heskey).  Today, we’ll take a quick look at how the United States can exploit England’s defensive vulnerabilities, and what that could—and should—mean for the way they line up on Saturday.

(Note: Since so much of the United States’ offensive prowess relies on the counter-attack, we’ll go behind that curtain later today.  If I haven’t lost my mind in the process (and that is a generous “if”), hopefully all these pieces will weave together to give you a full sense of how England plays, how to stop them defensively, and how to beat them offensively.)

Exploiting the England defense will not be easy—they allowed only six goals through 10 qualifying matches, and while that would put them only in the middle of the pack amongst the UEFA teams being represented in South Africa, it becomes more impressive in the context of the 34 goals they scored, which belied their attack-minded approach.  Of course, there is a delicate balance between a team’s ability attack and defend, and for a number of factors listed below, England seem in danger of disrupting that equilibrium.

To the extent that England is indeed defensively vulnerable, three points can be cited:

1. Backline Questions – With Rio Ferdinand injured, Fabio Capello will be without his defensive lynchpin in South Africa.  Make no mistake—Ferdinand’s absence looms large for England.  When healthy, he remains one of the finest center backs in the world.  Strong, quick, and with a remarkable ability to read the game, the back line was built around him, regardless of whether John Terry was wearing the captain’s armband.

Now, Terry will be forced to coexist with a new partner (pun intended; Google it).  Ledley King will likely get the call against the United States, but his battles with tendonitis make it rather certain that Matthew Upson, Jamie Carragher, or Michael Dawson will see time in subsequent matches.  Though all three are accomplished defenders, a lack of cohesion along the back line is a huge concern.  Furthermore, Terry and King will not make for the quickest pairing in the center of the line, surely an issue for a defense in which the outside backs are frequently in need of cover.

2. The Central Midfield Conundrum – The injury to Gareth Barry left England in dire search of another holding option, but they’ve come up empty-handed—Michael Carrick has been in dreadful form for much of the year; James Milner was wholly unconvincing in his audition versus Mexico; and Scott Parker was left off the roster entirely.  With few other options available, Capello is left with little choice but to pair Gerrard and Lampard together centrally.

Historically, the partnership has left much to be desired.  Sharing many of the same strengths and weaknesses, they struggle to assume concrete roles, often appearing disjointed in the process.  I presume it will be Lampard that’s asked to hold back and play a more defensive role, but that does little to solve the core problems.  While his effort and selflessness will never be called into doubt, but it’s rarely effective to hammer a square peg—even one of such class as Lampard—into a round hole.

Gerrard, for his part, tends to lack positional discipline even at the best of times, a poor omen for a team looking to adapt to a new shape and personnel at the most critical of times.  Wearing the captain’s armband on Saturday, he’ll have to do better, for the introduction of new tactics often leads to confusion.  Confusion, in turn, breeds vulnerability, as new gaps and space suddenly open in the defense—space that will be exploited by Landon Donovan and co.

3. Space on the Wings – We’ve twice covered (links) the tendency of Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole, England’s outside backs, to press forward.  While they become crucial parts of the attack, it also leaves them vulnerable to quick changes of possession.  Cole, leveraging his world-class speed, is usually able to track back before the right wing can be exploited, and you rarely see squads attempt to charge down the right side.  Johnson, on the other hand, has a habit of putting himself into dodgy positions.  Whoever of Gerrard and Lampard line up in a withdrawn/defensive role, their ability to cover for Johnson on his forays into the final third of the pitch will be critical to their defensive efforts.

How to Take Advantage

Now, it needs to be stressed that the lack of a true holding midfielder at the heart of the England formation certainly doesn’t portend an onslaught of goals for the USA.  Yet these defensive soft spots are very real, and feed right into the Americans’ core offensive strength: counter-attacking.  Speed, particularly on the wings, will be critical to unlocking the English defense.

The midfield is the most critical part of the attack, which is not surprising, since the United States will go as far as Donovan and Dempsey (in that order) take them.  If they can control the wings by getting behind Johnson and Cole; exploit the space in the middle created by a questionable defensive mid scheme; and link well with the forward line, damage can be done.

In the interests of not making this post far too long, we’ll break it off here.  Check back later today for an analysis of the American counter-attack, complete with the pictures and diagrams.


Written by Pete Kavanaugh

June 10, 2010 at 10:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Great post, great blog! Glad I discovered this (thanks to a link on mgoblog).

    …it becomes more impressive in the context of the 34 goals they scored, which belied their attack-minded approach.

    Betrayed or revealed, maybe? As written you’re saying that 34 goals show their attack-minded approach to be false.


    June 10, 2010 at 2:35 pm

  2. Great blog, nice analysis. I like your ability to take it apart piece by piece. I also found you courtesy of mgoblog. Keep posting; i will be a regular follower!

    Trevor Thrall

    June 10, 2010 at 9:59 pm

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