Thursday, 21 June 2012

Last thing we need now is expectation

Injuries, a change of manager, various questions over player selection and a 2 game ban to our best player yet England won Group D with 7 points going unbeaten. Two wins and a draw was surely what only the most optimistic of England fans would have expected. The performances against France and Ukraine were very disciplined with two clear banks of four and England taking any chances they could to attack but never over-committing. Hodgson would have been furious with the second half of the Sweden game, yes we won and his Walcott substitution worked out really well but there was no shape of defensive discipline in the display. The goals we conceded were extremely poor. Hodgson's teams are built on defensive solidarity first and foremost which is why Parker and Gerrard have sat so deep (which cost us on the Nasri goal in the first game) and why Milner is playing on the right over Walcott or Oxlade-Chamberlain.

England have succeeded in the group stages playing reactive football which is exactly how we should be playing, as I explained pre-tournament. We don't have the quality to play any other way and it has worked for teams this season, Chelsea and Atletico Madrid in the Champions League and Europa League finals. England have done this without the whole country saying "We can win it" and everyone expecting big things from these players. Having reached the knockout stages these thoughts might start to creep back in to the media and conversations between people down the pub and at work....DON'T LET THIS HAPPEN! The worst thing that could happen to us now, except for an injury, would be for expectations to rise up. The reaction to the way we play football in this tournament seems to have been one of acceptance. Winning and progression at tournaments is what counts at the end of the day rather than the style of football a team plays. In other countries like Spain, Germany and Holland the style is equally as important, just see the kind of bad press Bert van Marwijk gets from his decision to play van Bommel and de Jong. His decision was shown to be correct after the Portugal game as they were opened up consistently with only one player protecting the back four. The fact we haven't won anything since 1966 may be a big part of this. We crave success and have finally realised we are not going to achieve that playing like Barcelona or dominate a tournament with great flowing football. We have to succeed playing football in a different way based on defending and discipline.

Our path to the final starts with Italy on Sunday, likely Germany in the semis and Spain in the final (in my opinion). Germany have been the most impressive team in the tournament dominating their oppositions playing good football and also looking defensively solid. Italy on Sunday will pose an interesting opposition. I feel they played really well for the first 45 minutes against Croatia and also in parts vs Spain but they never seem to take their chances when they are on top or sustain their level of dominance for long periods of play. Italy are traditionally a team who set up not to get beat and that's exactly how England play so Sunday's game would look to be a defensive battle where one moment of quality will change the game. We will be looking to Rooney for this and Italy will be looking to Andrea Pirlo as everything good they do generally comes from him. He is the heartbeat of the team and can play a killer pass from anywhere on the pitch. Mario Balotelli will surely get a lot of press space in the build up to the game and if he fancies it and if he gets on the pitch he can cause us problems. Rooney and Pirlo will be operating in the same area of the pitch though so they may cancel each other out. If I was Prandelli I would play Pirlo on the right of a central midfield three with De Rossi in the middle to cope with the Rooney threat. De Rossi has been excellent for Italy in the group stages starting in a defensive three for the first two games and playing further forward in the final game against Ireland. England will no doubt be looking for fast breaks with Rooney, Welbeck and Young and also set piece opportunities to get goals.

Hodgson has handled the press and expectations extremely well since he was appointed England manager but I think he fully expected us to progress from the group we were in despite home advantage of Ukraine. Having said that Hodgson has now embraced the rising expectation which I feel may be a bad thing. The English public and the press only need a slight indication that we have a chance to succeed and we will see and hear all the usual waffle come back. Keeping expectation to a minimum should be a priority for the whole country, our players crumble under the pressure of penalties but have seemed to flourish (or as much as they can under our system) without the weight of a country on their shoulders. Hopefully they realised that we would be happy to see them in the knockout stages. A win against Italy on Sunday and a place in the semi finals will be our best performance since Euro 96 and an excellent achievement for the players and Roy Hodgson. With no expectation he took Fulham to the final of the Europa League and at every stage the consensus was that they had done really well but would lose. That is the mentality we need to have for this England team, full support for them but realistic expectations.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Spain and their no striker system

Sunday afternoon brought us the biggest surprise from a team selection point of view. Vicente Del Bosque chose to go with 6 traditional midfielders rather than selecting Torres or Llorente up front as a typical striker. The front man of this 6 was generally Cesc Fabregas operating in the false number 9 role, a very Spanish tactic. As soon as Guardiola was appointed Barcelona manager one of the first things he did was to talk to Messi and tell him that he was the best player at the club and that he should therefore be playing closer to the goal. Seemed to be pretty simple - put your best player and attacking threat closer to the goal and he will get more goals. The stats don't lie, it worked. This is not to compare Fabregas to Messi in any way, he is not Spain's most potent goal threat like Messi is with Barcelona. Del Bosque put Cesc in this position in an attempt to drag out De Rossi as he is naturally a defensive midfielder to open up the space in behind him. Fabregas, or the most forward Spanish player, was never going to play right against the last man like David Villa is so good at doing, check his offside numbers to see what I'm talking about. This means that most of the time Fabregas, Silva or Iniesta was going to be at least 5 yards off the last defender as that is how they naturally play - they all look for pockets of space and move into them to receive the ball. This system works well if the defender is drawn out to the ball and then the space in behind him is exploited early by runners from midfield. The onus was on Iniesta to do this as he has the skills and pace as well as the finishing ability. David Silva is a great player but he doesn't possess the pace to run into the box like they required, he would much prefer to be the player to provide the defence splitting ball to the runner, as he did for the goal.

The Spanish goal came from Fabregas making a run in behind Chiellini after he went out to Silva who was in the number 9 position. Spain picked the ball up from a slack pass into Pirlo and Xavi pounced on the chance to win the ball and give it to Iniesta early. The World Cup hero then attacked Italy and drew in at least 3 Italian defenders before laying off to Silva who instantly saw Fabregas' run. That was exactly how Del Bosque would have seen his decision working out with moves like that. Iniesta had a great chance in the first half when he positioned himself in space alongside the back 3 of Italy and could well have finished the move created by Xavi. Spain's best other chances in the first half came from pressing Italy and winning the ball in their own half before breaking whilst the Azzurri had committed men forward. These chances fell to David Silva who will only take chances on his left foot and he failed to truly test Buffon on both occasions.

The Italians played a high pressing game, in the first half the pressure on Busquets led to Cassano winning the ball and being fouled by Sergio Ramos resulting in Pirlo's free kick being saved by Casillas. Their back 3 played very deep for most of the game although arguably when they should have played deepest, when Torres replaced Cesc, they played high and should have been punished for this but Torres couldn't capitalise on his 2 great chances. The first of these chances should see Buffon given more credit than Torres given flack, he knew exactly what Torres was going to do and he didn't go down and foul the Chelsea man. There's no doubt even the world's greatest Lionel Messi would have tried to go round Buffon as well. His second chance was another excellent through ball and he created the chance to chip Buffon himself, but like his season has gone the chance failed to go in. His confidence will surely be very low after these misses and the fact he was overlooked for no striker. Torres said after the game "we didn't practice that system with Cesc". Hardly seems like he was impressed with Del Bosque's decision although I would think his chances of starting the game on Thursday will be much higher after Spain created a lot more when he came on. Both chances Torres had were great through balls that he could run on to, showing it was the right decision to bring him on rather than Llorente who would have struggled to outpace the defence. On the other hand Llorente would have thrived on the crosses Jesus Navas provided when he was introduced on the right hand side.

Once again it looks like Spain will attempt to tire their opposition for the first 60 minutes with excellent possession football and the possibility of creating chances through Tiki Taka football until they introduce the likes of Torres, Navas, Llorente and Pedro to give the opposition other problems to think about. These players are more likely to finish chances created by Xavi, Silva and Iniesta. Back in South Africa, Spain lost their opening game and then dropped Silva and Iniesta for Torres and Jesus Navas. This year I feel we can see the same players come in with Silva and Fabregas dropped so there is more of a traditional shape and not too many similar players. For their third group game they brought Iniesta back in for Navas. If Pedro had been playing yesterday I feel the system would have worked really quite well, he has great pace and his finishing ability is much better than those on display yesterday. He had a down year for Barcelona with the rise of Cuenca, Tello and various injuries on a personal level but he came back in the last few games of the season and started in the Copa del Rey final. His constant pressing of the opposition makes Barcelona tick and sets the precedent from the front which is why I was surprised he didn't play any part yesterday. He would have run into any space left by the Italian back three and you can guarantee he would have been found with the abundance of class Spain had behind him.

My final thoughts go to Xabi Alonso. He is the pass master for Real Madrid and he would walk into any national team in the world, what I would give for him to be English. However, is there room for him in this Spanish team? Del Bosque clearly feels he should be in the team as I'm sure many Spaniards and non-Spaniards do but what does he do that Xavi can't? He is a deep lying ball player, much like Andrea Pirlo whereas Xavi will drift forward and does get on the end of balls delivered in the box. Since Messi has blossomed under Pep in the centre of the pitch Xavi has gone to play at another level. His link up play with Messi is excellent and they often find each other in the box. Del Bosque has seen this change in Xavi's game so he had faith in the Barcelona trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Cesc all to make runs into the box vs Italy.

Can anyone picture Xabi Alonso making this run for the goal Xavi scored against Real Madrid? I may have contradicted myself by explaining how Xavi now operates in a more forward position and can make runs into the box so Busquets needs someone alongside him for protection but he doesn't need that for Barcelona. If Xabi Alonso was to be dropped for one of Pedro, Torres, Llorente or Navas I think we would see Spain finish and create more chances. Xavi could then play slightly deeper but with Busquets behind him he would have faith in his protection. This would also allow Iniesta to come more inside, with Pedro an option on the left and if not then the speedy Jordi Alba could exploit this space from his left back role. I would argue having the midfield trio of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta with Pedro/Navas, Torres and Silva as the three up front would cause their opposition many more problems and gives them more balance. The loss of David Villa to this team can't be underestimated, Spain's topscorer is relied upon to a large degree to get the goals and be the final link in their great football. Having threats from a front three like that would hopefully mean Iniesta wouldn't attract this sort of attention, but if he did and managed to pass the ball on it would be finished.

Spain, to me, are a great team to watch and play football in the right way even if they don't tend to shoot as soon as they should. That is why David Villa is so key, he won't hesitate to have a go whenever he has a yard of space. I don't think this will be Spain's year as they still need a natural finisher to convert their great play but we saw something yesterday that was very interesting to see. 

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

How England can win Euro 2012.....Yes that does say WIN!

Welcome to my second post on this blog. The following is a piece I have been thinking about and planning since watching the Champions League final in May. I have now decided it is time to write this piece and try to work out just how we can win Euro 2012.

This may seem like an impossible task to most of the country and even those most optimistic English fans must have significantly less hope than previous tournaments for the 'Golden Generation'. The country loves getting behind the England team and big up our chances of being successful and winning tournaments, mainly the media and certain elements of this country's media, but this year there has been a drastic change in perception. There has been a realistic take on our chances with the managerial change to Roy Hodgson, the loss of Rooney for the first 2 games after his moment of stupidity and the injuries in the buildup to the tournament. This is a welcome change to the normal way of doing things for the English media but has led to the media now saying "with the lowest expectation in recent memory can England win". Will this ever end?

So how will we set up, what will our style be and who will actually play? Well Roy Hodgson's history has always been to play a 4-4-2 formation, that can possibly adapt to a 4-4-1-1. Hodgson's team are always about defensive solidity first and foremost, 'defence wins championships' is a classic phrase used in the NFL but for any sport it can be applied. No matter how good your attack is if your defence can't stop the other team from scoring how will you ever win. It's not a coincidence that teams that win leagues have the best defensive records, Man City and Man Utd conceded the least amount of goals in the Premiership last season while Wolves conceded the most and finished bottom. This old game is pretty simple. Now there are two ways to prevent your team from conceding in my opinion, one is with the ball and the other is without the ball. Spain and Barcelona don't concede goals because they always have the ball, possession is nine-tenths of the law and if you have 69.3% possession as Barca did last season then it's very difficult for the opposition to score goals. Now England won't play like this and never will, our players are not naturally talented enough or comfortable on the ball like the Spanish or the Dutch. Far too often when we have the ball we lose it or just hoof it forward much to my personal frustration and the frustration of many of those watching. Our players are never comfortable to simply maintain possession and move the opposition around the pitch until a pocket of space opens up and can be exploited. We have no patience.

The other way to not concede and the one England will adopt is to play a game of frustration and prevention all designed to hit teams on the counter attack. It's clear to see from the two 1-0 wins against Norway and Belgium that England will set up in a 4-4-1-1 formation with Ashley Young playing just behind our main striker who is likely to be Andy Carroll over Danny Welbeck despite his well publicised form and lack of goals this season. We will have two very solid banks of four with not too much space in between the two of them. This is designed to eliminate the space in between the midfielder and defence that is exploited by the naturally gifted talents such as David Silva, Mesut Ozil, Samir Nasri and Wesley Sneijder. These are the talents that have led to a modern day era of teams playing 4-3-3 and moving away from the standard 4-4-2. They are the main players for their teams and a lot runs through them, if you prevent their best player from expressing themselves you are forcing the opposition to switch to Plan B. Spain will have more of a Plan B than Barcelona did against Chelsea when they were frustrated to death. Their Plan B is to go more direct to Fernando Llorente as seen in their second round game against Portugal in the 2010 World Cup. They scored within 5 minutes of him coming on and he did an excellent job of holding the ball up when they were forced to go long. They combine this with using the likes of Pedro and Jesus Navas in the wide positions to stretch the opposition and deliver crosses to Llorente. Barca tried a similar strategy this season using two from Tello, Cuence and Pedro in wide positions hugging the touchline to stretch the play and open up gaps for Messi, Iniesta and co. but they had no threat of punishing teams with crosses unlike Spain. Andy Carroll will have to do what Llorente did in this game; hold the ball up, earn fouls and big a general nuisance to the opposition defence.

England will be going long quick and often, against Norway it was clear to see Hodgson had instructed the team to go long to Carroll or into Young's feet' as soon as we win the ball back. The pace of Young and his running ability will be a threat for us and quite possibly our key player for the first two games as long as he isn't diving around everywhere (although that will likely be his tactic to win free kicks which we can exploit). They linked up well for the goal against Norway so hopefully that is a sign of things to come.

England will happily allow our opponents to have the ball as Chelsea did against Benfica, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. This is the blueprint we must follow. As someone who loves the possession game and watching free flowing proactive football it pains me to admit it but reactive football will be the only hope for England in the Euros. We have played in this manner in Hodgson's first two games in charge and it won't change now. Chelsea's key men in those games were Ramires and Drogba. Ramires played on the right and did well defensively but was the key to breaking away quickly, see his goal against Barcelona at the Nou Camp. I expect us to start James Milner on one side of our midfield for his all round ability and versatility so the opposite side will be filled by Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Stewart Downing. I feel our best bet to copy the blueprint would be to start Oxlade-Chamberlain but put him on the left so Milner can support Glen Johnson on the right hand side. This will be particularly important against France up against Franck Ribery. Ashley Cole is our most consistent player and who no doubt be our player of the tournament as he has been in past tournaments so he will need less protection from the midfield than Johnson on the right. Chamberlain's youth and inexperience should be seen as a bonus not a hindrance as most will view it. In all likelihood we will exit at the 1/4 finals stage so why not give him the experience from the start to help his development ahead of the World Cup in 2014.

That leaves Carroll as our Drogba. They are in two very different classes but both really step up when they fancy it and can bully centre backs. A goal for Carroll vs Norway would have been an excellent confidence boost for him but it wasn't to be. He will need to assert himself early against France. He won't be required to chase down defenders when they have the ball at the back but he must be switched on as soon as we win the ball as he will be involved very quickly. Drogba was the key component to Chelsea and even though I felt he was defended against well by Bayern Munich in the final with Tymoshuck getting in front of him whilst Boateng stayed behind him when the ball was played long he was the difference from a corner. England will depend on dead ball situations and Carroll is a threat in the air even though he only managed 4 league goals this season whilst having 2.5 shots per game. His form in the last month of the season was encouraging and hopefully the motivation to go the Euros and start for England forced him to raise his game. In the FA Cup Final for those last 25 minutes he was excellent, he needs to recreate that for 90 minutes in an England shirt.

To round off I personally give us no hope of winning the Euros, our team is a mess and has been put together in about 2 weeks rather than 2 years. I always felt we should use this tournament as a preparation for Brazil 2014 with youth players brought in and given the chance to start. Hodgson has little pressure on him although I'm sure he doesn't feel that way. No one should expect us to play excellent football but I expect us to be defensively solid, we will mainly aim to prevent anything from coming from the central areas and we have centre backs and a keeper who are comfortable with crosses. We will set up in the correct way for our style and the players we have and even when Rooney is available I don't expect us to change from the 4-4-1-1. I think Young will move to the left and Rooney fills the number 10 role. We won't be exciting but we will be solid and let's be honest we will all be watching and hoping.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot. We might need some luck as well!