England: An Autopsy

28 06 2010

Apologies for the delay. There was quite a lot to take in. Here are a few thoughts on the reasons for England’s weekend elimination:

1) Don’t under-estimate the Germans

Alan Hansen may continue to push the view that they are no better than average, but all the indications are that this Germany team know what they are doing. The defence is largely unspectacular although it must be noted that in Philipp Lahm they possess one of the finest full-backs in the game. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira are a dynamic pairing with good passing skills. Mesut Ozil is one hell of a player with that golden combination of pace, skill and intelligence. Importantly, they all know the gameplan and are comfortable in the system. Throw in young Thomas Muller and the continually under-rated Miroslav Klose and you have quite a team. They will cause Argentina, a side with better players than England possess, more than a few problems.

2) Tactics / Formation simply wrong

Of course England’s deficiencies are not solely the responsibility of Fabio Capello and I have long argued that if a man with his record cannot bring success then surely nobody can. However, it can only be frustrating to see him wedded to a stuttering 4-4-2 that so plainly failed to bring the best out in key players. Wayne Rooney favours a lone role up front. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard would appreciate being freed of some of their defensive responsibilities. Gareth Barry and Joe Cole prefer to operate in a 4-5-1. Aaron Lennon is more suited to it. As is Michael Carrick. To be honest, pretty much any creative player you choose to mention would be better served in a 4-5-1 and in the absence of a world-class strike partner for Rooney it is baffling that Capello did not seem to entertain the idea. Even if convinced by the success of the qualifying campaign, surely he had seen that it wasn’t working in the group stages of this World Cup? Even if persuaded by the improved showing against Slovenia, surely the 1st half mauling, with Ozil repeatedly enjoying the freedom of Bloemfontein in between the English lines, would see him change the shape? There are many valid arguments for why England fail to impress at the highest level but the chief reason this particular 90 minutes did not go England’s way was down to the way Capello set his team out. For that, he is surely culpable.

3) We Are Just Not That Good

Ashley Cole world-class? Fair enough. Wayne Rooney top drawer? He had a nightmare tournament, but yes. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard? Wonderful players, although they are both the wrong side of 30..

After this, it is hard to make a persuasive case for these players being of the highest order. Robert Green and David James have been involved in relegation battles all season, the latter unsuccessfully so. Likewise Matthew Upson.  Joe Cole and Emile Heskey are not first XI players. James Milner, Gareth Barry, Jermain Defoe, Aaron Lennon.. these guys have not played regular Champions League football. Glen Johnson of Liverpool won’t next season. These are not top-class footballers and there is just no reason for us to think they should be.

4) The Premiership Style of Play

Capello highlighted tiredness as being the key reason for England’s failure to impress in South Africa. With the entire 23 man squad playing their football in the Premiership perhaps it does have some weight as an argument. The best league in the world? It is certainly the fastest. With a high turnover of possession and a heavy emphasis on the physical, players are proving unable to maintain that tempo in tournament play as the opposition prove unwilling to give the ball back so readily

However, my view is that the problems inherent in the Premiership extend beyond talk of tiredness and winter breaks. It centres around the very types of player that it helps to create and thrive. England posses a plethora of powerhouse midfielders with good engines – I am thinking top class players like Gerrard & Lampard in their prime, or merely good ones like Gareth Barry & James Milner. I’m looking at how a supreme talent like Joe Cole who could do anything with a football was converted into a winger, playing on the periphery of the game, and effectively had his creativity coached out of him for the good of the team. Fine players like Deco are derided for not being able to impose themselves on the English game and the 6-0-6 crew will all have a laugh about how his ilk go missing on a cold November Tuesday in Bolton. Harry Redknapp, a progressive coach if some are to be believed, recently suggested we over-rate Brazil – they can’t be that good because Elano and Robinho couldn’t cut it in the Premiership apparently. Well, maybe the Premiership is not the ultimate judge of a footballer? Maybe that is in fact our problem and not theirs?

Whatever the reason, no Premiership footballer has a World Cup winners medal so far this century and should favourites Brazil win this one, the only outfield player in their squad contracted to a Premiership club is none other than Robinho. Food for thought.


The matter of England’s elimination is as big or as little a discussion as you want it to be. You can get into issues of foreign players, the relationship between the FA and The Premier League, even the blame culture of modern society if you wish. Or you can say Gareth Barry is slow as death and the linesman was blind. I think the key is to retain some balance between the two. Germany are a good side and they won the match because they tactically outwitted the England side. In many ways it was a textbook example of how 4-2-3-1 exposes 4-4-2 with Mesut Ozil free to roam in the hole untracked by the English midfield and confusing their centre-backs. This was the reason for the defeat. But even if we had won the battle, we are still losing the war. Where is the guile? Where are the skilful and creative footballers who can play a simple, passing game? It does not seem a coincidence that they are missing from the England squad. It appears to be the natural result of the way football is played in this country. Oh well, see you in 4 years time for another disaster.


What is wrong with the BBC?

28 06 2010


Another match and another two hours of the BBC moaning about the World Cup.

They would no doubt defend themselves by saying they are simply calling it as they see it. Unfortunately, it is looking more like they are hardly bothering to watch. Whether it be Alan Hansen seemingly disgusted about having to cover New Zealand vs Slovakia on his birthday, or Alan Shearer quipping that he’d prefer to be on the treadmill than have to sit through Brazil vs Portugal, the BBC pundits have the demeanor of grumpy old men having their jolly-up spoiled by the inconvenience of having to watch some football.

If the complaint was just that they are grumpy then that would simply be a matter of taste. However, the case against is somewhat stronger than that:

Lack of Research

Nobody is expecting the BBC’s punditry team to have an in-depth knowledge of every player at the tournament, that would be ludicrous. Is it unreasonable though to expect some sort of basic googling to have gone on? A few well-placed sources tapped for information before appearing on screen in front of millions? To feel it is acceptable to simply turn up at the studio and shamelessly announce ‘we don’t know much about the x, y or z”, as Shearer has on countless occasions, just smacks of arrogance. There’s been a few well-documented low points. Hansen mocking Lee Dixon and Gary Lineker for being fed the name of Marek Hamsik before Slovakia’s opening game implied that not only was knowing the identity of a highly-rated Napoli midfielder a level of knowledge that was just not cool but was also deriding their attempts to ascertain a bit of basic information. Things were little better in the commentary booth as Mick McCarthy appeared shocked to discover that Juan Veron was the same Veron who used to play for Manchester United. Mark Bright revealing he had never seen Lionel Messi play well was probably the final straw. Revelling in their own ignorance.

Lack of Expertise

As is often the way, the desperate state of affairs can pass you by until you see the alternative. Harry Redknapp has been much derided for his one-dimensional analysis of teams at the World Cup in his Sun guide but perhaps we can forgive him on the grounds he was playing down to his target audience. When on the BBC his sprinkling of knowledge has stood-out like he was showing off. It hasn’t been ground-breaking stuff – knowing that Kesuike Honda played for CSKA Moscow for example – but it has added to the coverage. Likewise Roy Hodgson, who was the only member of the team who questioned the possibility that BBC’s information about England playing a diamond formation against Slovenia was in fact the total rubbish it turned out to be. Unfortunately, he and Redknapp have stood out like sore thumbs and any attempts to engage with the rest of the panel have often just been uncomfortable: Hodgson turning to McCarthy to ask what he thought of Cardozo’s role when he came on for Paraguay vs Italy was met with embarrassing silence as it became clear that Mick had not the slightest idea who he was talking about let alone where he had played. McCarthy covered the game live for the BBC. As for the foreign pundits, Clarence Seedorf has been a welcome addition, Jurgen Klinsmann under-used, whilst the less said about the incomprehensible Emmanuel Adebayor the better.

Both Too Much Experience, and yet, Not Enough?

Ok, you’ll have to bear with me here. The point is, some of these guys seem intent on mixing the worst of all worlds. Many of Hansen’s offerings give the impression of a man a little too long in the tooth – how many times can he solemnly declare that defenders hate pace before it loses resonance? His alliterations of presence, power & pace sound good but isn’t he simply saying big, strong & quick which we’ve heard from him many times before? When it is coupled with Mark Lawrenson in the commentary booth, a man apparently begging to be put out of his misery and never asked to watch a football match again, then it creates a world-weary mood a million miles away from the hyperbole of Sky Sports.

Aahh Sky Sports. Now you may say that a thousand miles away from Sky would be appropriate but a million just feels a bit too downbeat for me. I’m no fan of Jamie Redknapp and Andy Gray. I mean, I’m seriously not. But Sky do know how to cover football, which brings me to the BBC’s lack of experience. It is really starting to feel as though the punditry team do not remember what it is like to broadcast live matches. Sky, helped by the experience of covering multiple live games week-in week-out, understand how to handle a game that is 0-0 at half-time – remain upbeat, show a few of the chances and discuss which side needs to change it and why. Maybe it is simplistic to say so but the BBC team are used to producing 10 minute highlights packages of the best Premiership games with a passing look at the goals from the less interesting contests and this would appear to be what they are more comfortable with. When faced with 45 whole minutes of goalless football they are unable to find the positives, their whole faith in the game seems to have disappeared. Odd.


There are lots of things the BBC do well. Recent features on Robben Island and Sir Stanley Matthews have added interesting background and colour to the coverage. Sadly, when it comes to the football at this World Cup, the commentary and punditry teams just seem unable to reflect both the enthusiasm and the knowledge of their audience.

Oh well, at least they’re not ITV..

England vs Slovenia – A Preview

22 06 2010

I just saw Piers Morgan’s team for the Slovenia game. 4-4-2, Lampard and Gerrard as the central pair with ‘Crouchy’ up front and SWP on the wing. Didn’t exactly inspire me. Well, that’s not true, it inspired me to write this.. a few thoughts on the credible alternatives facing Capello right now..

The first thing to say is that a change of shape appears both necessary and inevitable. To say that 4-4-2 is an old-fashioned and discredited formation is patently untrue. What is true, and has been for some time now, is that the formation does not suit the players at England’s disposal. After a sensational free-scoring season for Man Utd, often playing alone as a central forward, the notion that Emile Heskey is there ‘to get the best out of Wayne Rooney’ should have been questioned. From the moment Wayne Rooney said he preferred to play on his own up front, it should have been filed in the tray marked Plan B.  When you throw in the fact that the players arguably need the psychological boost of being told that it was the formation that was the problem then we are probably heading inexorably towards some sort of variation of 4-5-1.

The two best options for England and Fabio Capello involve bringing in either Michael Carrick or Joe Cole:

1) Michael Carrick

The case for Michael Carrick’s inclusion has been made in more depth and more persuasively than I could hope to in several articles by Zonal Marking over the past few months. Suffice to say, when on form, he is positionally excellent and has a good range of passing in his repertoire. Those articles argue for his inclusion alongside Gareth Barry with Frank Lampard ahead of them and Steven Gerrard wide left in a 4-2-3-1. This formation would clearly give Rooney his desired role as a lone frontman and, perhaps equally significantly, give Lampard more attacking freedom. Of course, Steven Gerrard remains out on the left-flank which is not ideal. However, he is playing out of position as it is and at least in a 4-2-3-1 there is a chance that Barry can cover the problems caused by Gerrard’s positional wanderings somewhat better than seems to be the case in a 4-4-2. This formation would hopefully see Barry and Carrick secure control of the midfield and give England’s star players the platform from which they can go play and score goals.





2) Joe Cole

You could be forgiven for thinking Joe Cole has been England’s player of the World Cup thus far judging by the kind words written and spoken about him over the past week. What started as a Joe Cole or Adam Johnson debate last month has now become, according to John Terry at least, a case of Joe Cole being one of only two players who can unlock opposition defences. Good progress for a man who has seen no match action thus far. It is fair to say, however, that he does give England something different. While Wright-Phillips and Lennon have that ability to stretch the play, only Cole has that combination of dribbling skills and guile that England appear to have been sorely lacking. If he is to be involved it would seem likely to be from the left-wing, freeing Gerrard up to take his preferred role playing off Rooney. Cole had some success here in 2006 for England, emerging as one of the side’s better performers with his stunning goal against Sweden the highlight.

3) Others

There have been alternative ideas floated. As I write this, there is talk of Jermain Defoe joining Rooney up front and Shaun Wright-Phillips replacing Aaron Lennon on the right-wing. This formation would be in keeping with the shape Capello favoured throughout qualifying. However, with SWP merely a like-for-like swap for Lennon the change is partly cosmetic and perhaps fails to get to the root of the problem – England are just not functioning as a team.


England have stumbled through the first two games of this World Cup and the reasons are many. The feeling persists though, that there are quality players in the squad who could take England far deeper into the tournament than currently looks likely. The key is getting the best out of them. That task is a psychological and motivational one but it is also tactical. The options discussed above would surely give Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard every chance of succeeding. If one of the options is taken then let us hope the players make it work. And if Capello does not opt for these changes, let us hope it does not cost us.

Have Chile Done Enough?

22 06 2010

It was always going to be fascinating when Marcelo Bielsa’s Chile faced Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Swiss outfit. One of the most attacking sides in the competition versus the brilliantly organised conquerers of Spain. The difference in outlook between the two teams was only exarcebated when Switzerland went down to ten men in the first half. What followed was a spirited effort by the Chileans to break down the two walls of four that ended in a deserved 1-0 triumph. Success for Chile? Well, they may rue their missed opportunities – defeat against Spain could see them going home despite a six point haul.

The initial shapes of the sides were as outlined below:

Chile's 3-3-1-3 is depicted on the left, Switzerland's 4-4-1-1 on the right.

Switzerland retain shape with 10 men

The sending off of Valon Behrami (11) saw Tranquillo Barnetta come on to replace him on the right-wing and captain Alexander Frei (9) withdrawn. Defensively, this meant there was very little change in shape as the Swiss retained their two banks of four with Blaise Nkufo ploughing a lone furrow up front. As a result, the Chileans continued to see more of the ball but also continued to face the same problems in breaking the Swiss down.

An example of the problems facing Chile:

Despite committing five men forward, Chile are met by Swiss wall of five, plus two sitting midfielders protecting the centre of the defence

Switzerland often relied on their most advanced players to press the ball while the deeper midfielders Inler and Huggel sat deep and concentrated on protecting the back four. The above image shows a back five in place and emphasises that, whilst largely rigid in formation, Hitzfeld’s side tracked their runners and dealt well with the problems Chile set them in committing so many men forward.

Mark Gonzalez’s winner finally saw Chile make the breakthrough after Esteban Paredes had broken through the high Swiss line. Jorge Valdivia’s introduction at half-time made a difference with his creativity on the ball and there was not enough pressure on him when he was allowed to pick out Paredes. Indeed, it was the pressing of the Chileans that caught the eye throughout..

Chile Pressing

One of the remarkable features of this game, even to the casual observer, was the regularity with which Chile were able to dispossess the Switzerland defenders. International football, and top level football in general, usually features the central defenders stroking the ball around with time and space as the opposition do not waste energy harrying quality players so high up the field. This Chile side dispossessed the Swiss defence on numerous occassions through speed and effort, exposing the technical deficiencies in their opponents. Their starting positions contributed to this as Chile pressed higher and higher up the field:

Chile formation in final 15 mins per FIFA average position data

The tactical positions in the diagram above are for the period after the 74th minute goal and indicate Chile’s ongoing commitment to attack even having secured the lead. The BBC commentators appeared unconvinced by the state of the game. Mark Bright criticised the Chileans for continuing to attack recklessly and nearly had his concerns justified when Eren Derdiyok wasted a chance for Switzerland to equalise late on. However, perhaps Chile just had a better grasp of the fact that this was their chance to secure qualification. A 1-0 result has left them needing a point against Spain and, should Switzerland defeat Honduras, facing elimination should they not achieve it. There can be no denying they went for it against the ten men:

Chile have a 5 vs 4 on the break late on

And again in the 92nd minute:

Yet another 5 on 4 scenario in injury time

As the images above indicate, nobody could accuse Chile of not going all out to improve their goal difference. Where they are culpable is in wasting these opportunities. Paredes probably spurned the best of them but Gonzalez also blew opportunities, as he had against Honduras, frequently shooting when a pass could have put a team-mate clean through.


A 1-0 win for Chile puts them in the box seat as it stands – Jim Beglin even foolishly insinuated they may be in a position to rest players against Spain – but they are extremely vulnerable. Nobody would be surprised if Spain beat them and if Switzerland find a way past Honduras then La Roja will be going home. It is likely that, whatever happens in the final game, many would look back at their failure to punish Switzerland in this encounter as the key. Conversely, the Swiss can be proud that they did not wilt in the face of adversity and may well come to look back on this result as that strangest of things: a satisfactory defeat.

France Just Dismal

17 06 2010

The first thing to say here is that Mexico were excellent. Bright, busy and with bagfuls of talent they are an exciting side and thoroughly deserve to qualify from this group. And yet, there is no doubt the story tonight is the demise of the 2006 finalists France. They were horrible. So much talent, so many big names, but France just never looked right in this World Cup. In truth, they haven’t looked right for the best part of four years. No team spirit, players not working for themselves or each other, rumours of dissention in the ranks seemingly proven true by events on the pitch.

It is hard to expand on the tactical problems of the French team when frankly it is a side issue given the lack of unity quite rightly highlighted as the key issue by Clarence Seedorf and Roy Hodgson on the BBC. Moreover, whilst Domenech’s selection has been queried, there was nothing too outlandish in the much-maligned coach’s team selection. Top-rated keeper. Arsenal right-back and centre-back, Man Utd left-back and Barcelona’s Eric Abidal. Two holding midfielders. Malouda, Ribery and Govou in behind Nic Anelka, a man accustomed to playing the lone role up front. Of course, it isn’t ideal – Ribery is happier playing from the left. Govou has been struggling. Anelka now seems to insist on going walkabout for no apparent reason and Eric Abidal is more comfortable at full-back than in the middle. Even so, if ever there was a case of a team being less than the sum of their parts then this was it.

One thing that can be said is that the goal was coming. Rafael Marquez is not the player he was, having lost a yard of pace since his pomp, but if you give him a plethora of willing runners and time and space to pick a pass then you’re asking for trouble:

Carlos Vela's skied chance in the 8th minute. Marquez, noted by the red mark, has just played a delicate ball over the top.

In the above image, William Gallas has been sucked in and is caught out on the turn while Bacary Sagna & Eric Abidal are far too slow to see the danger and thus compound the problem, effectively leaving three men racing onto Marquez’s throughball. Toulalan & Diaby, the French midfielders (marked in blue), are out of the game – neither tracking runners nor closing down Marquez in possession.

France were not punished on that occasion but Javier Hernandez put them out of their misery in the second half:

The players marked blue indicate the static French side while the arrows indicate the runs of Giovani and Hernandez. Marquez is, again, the player on the ball, marked by red.

For the first Mexican goal, Marquez was again able to loft a ball over the top to willing runners, this time as the static French defence attempted to hold a high line. Once again, the enthusiastic running of the Mexicans was in stark contrast to the lethargic closing down of the French side.


France look set to go home and quite rightly so given their performances thus far. No spirit. No organisation. And now, no hope.

Argentina Excite Again

17 06 2010

A slight change of shape and personnel for Argentina but it was another win for the South Americans as they continue to impress under the ever-entertaining Diego Maradona.

The opening game against Nigeria could have been a similar scoreline to this 4-1 victory but for a stunning performance by their keeper Enyeama. As it was, the score remained 1-0 last Saturday and there was just the one change from that team this time around – Maxi Rodriguez coming in for the injured Juan Seba Veron. It saw a subtle change in shape for the Argentinians. The diagram below shows the average positions in the first game:

Notice how Veron was by no means playing the mirror position to Di Maria, who held the width on the left-hand side. The Argentinian right-side was a flexible collaborative effort courtesy of Jonas Gutierrez, a natural winger, pushing on from full-back, Veron drifting out there at times and Carlos Tevez or Gonzalo Higuain working hard to get back in support.

Against South Korea, with Maxi a far more natural wide-man than Veron, the formation became a more regulation 4-4-2 diamond formation:

Messi’s performance at the tip of the diamond was a pleasure to watch as the world’s best player gave another glimpse of his immense talents. The front two were also more impressive – freed of the constraints of patrolling the right-flank when out of possession. Higuain was to walk away with the match-ball with a textbook display of world-class goal hanging – all 3 coming at the far post from a combined distance of the average sized living room. As for Tevez, his busy efforts catch the eye but he perhaps lacked that little bit of awareness at times. Indeed, the last two goals came with his replacement Sergio Aguero on the field and the little Atletico man was heavily involved in both.

Aguero sees the run of Messi and shows fantastic awareness to play a delightful reverse pass. The player marked red is the goalscorer Higuain. Maxi is highlighted by the green mark.

Messi returned the favour with a gorgeous chip over the Korean defence to find Aguero:

Again, red marks the goalscorer Higuain and green marks Maxi on the right-wing.

Maxi has been highlighted in these pictures because they indicate the more attacking shape the Argentinians adopted in this game. This was not a position Veron found himself in too often and, for the 4th goal in particular, the presence of Maxi in an advanced role helped open the space for Higuain by keeping the Korean defender Yeom Ki-Hun wide.


It was certainly a warning shot across the bow of any side that comes across the Argentines at the business end of this World Cup and showed that they can succeed with a different point of attack. They adapted well to a 4-4-2 diamond with Messi acting as the primary playmaker after having used Veron effectively as a deeper-lying playmaker in the first game. Doubts remain at the back but, after this display, all indications are that this will not be a problem until much deeper into the tournament.

Heartbreak for Hosts.. But Uruguay Impress

16 06 2010

It should have been Bafana Bafana’s big night but Uruguay stole the show in their encounter with the hosts and thoroughly deserve the plaudits.

In their first encounter with France, coach Tabarez stuck with his tried and trusted 3-5-2 and took a point against Domenech’s dysfunctional side. It was a fairly unambitious effort from the South Americans but they certainly expanded their repertoire in this game and the signs were there right from the outset as Tabarez included Cavani to play up with Suarez and Forlan, ditching the unimpressive Gonzalez. The FIFA average position diagram indicates a Christmas Tree formation with Cavani and Forlan supporting Suarez:

The presence of Cavani allowed Forlan more opportunity to go looking for the ball and he regularly found space for himself in between the South African lines which was perhaps a surprise given the presence of two holding midfielders in the Bafana Bafana line-up. What was also significant was the presence of Alvaro Pereira in a more advanced role. As you can see in the diagram above, Pereira was operating in a midfield three with Fucile behind him and this meant much more freedom to attack following his mainly defensive brief against the French where, playing as a wing-back, he was frequently pinned back by their 4-3-3 system. Here, he was able to influence the game much higher up the field and this is well illustrated in the build-up to the opening goal:

It is Pereira’s purposeful run ahead of Forlan that buys the goalscorer time to take aim and get his shot away as the South African defenders hesitate to close down the man with the ball. People will quite rightly give the credit to Forlan himself and perhaps point to a lucky deflection. However, it is an excellent example of how committing men forward with pace and good movement can buy you some luck and help a team create more openings.

The key moment in the second half was clearly the sending off of Khune and there was no way back from there as Uruguay added a second from the spot. The third, another example of Pereira’s forward running as he scored almost on the goal-line, was the icing on the cake of an impressive Uruguayan display. They had shown they could defend. Now they have shown they can score goals. It looks like the first ever winners of the World Cup are not in the mood to go home anytime soon.