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U-21 Tactics Expose Weaknesses of English Football

By John Nicholson
Those of us who are still clinging to the wreckage of the 2006/07 season in Europe are all watching the Under21 European tournament in Holland and fascinating watching it’s proving to be, especially for England fans.

England has drawn both their games. A tedious 0-0 v Czech Republic and a 2-2 against Italy after being 2-0 up.

These games have writ large both the strengths and the endemic problems of English football as played by Englishmen.

For the first game they tried to play a 4-3-3 system for about an hour. This had worked for them under Taylor previously and came highly recommended by the previous manager as the only system to play at international level. In the Tv studio he reiterated how important it is not to be out numbered in midfield. You need to play 4-5-1 without the ball and 4-3-3 with it he said.

The trouble is when England play the best sides, they seem unable to make 4-3-3- work. The Czech’s were well disciplined and pressured the ball. This soon made England play the long ball game and not the wide expansive game that 4-3-3 is designed to give you. England soon atrophied into a 4-5-1 even when in possession and resorted to booting it long for Nugent to knock it down to…well to no one because no one else was there.

The traditionalists of English football will tell you English players only know how to play 4-4-2. It’s compact and they feel comfortable with it. This is probably true but therein lies the problem. Their inability to adapt and play a different system leads to the problems we subsequently saw in the Italy game where we went back to 4-4-2.

Italy is fairly weak defensively at Under21 level and we totally dominated the first 25 minutes, scoring two goals and it could have been 5. This is the good side of England. The attacking high tempo pressured game that can steamroller a side not prepared for it.

However, it’s impossible to keep that kind of pace up and as we had the lead we soon sat back and Italy soon spotted what to do to stop us. They slowed the pace of the game down when in possession and went 4-3-3, when they lost possession they played 4-5-1 and even 4-6-0 in order to win the ball back. We were over-run in midfield and when we did win the ball had no outlet for it and soon ceded possession again.

England dropped too deep because they were a man short in midfield because of playing the 4-4-2. The last hour of the game was an excellent spectacle as Italy pulled two goals back and could have had another three while England relied on breakaways to try and win it.

It was an archetypal England performance. Unable to retain possession because their tactics didn’t allow for it, they defended deeper and deeper and let Italy come on to them and shoot from range. It was almost suicidal and we only got away with it because of Italian profligacy in front of goal. They were going for the win so gaps appeared in their defence but we shouldn’t think this was because of England’s wonderful tactical display.

All my life I’ve watched England defenders win the ball on the edge of their own penalty area and kick it long for a striker to chase after. It so rarely works any more and the final possession stats of 42% England 58% Italy showed how poor it was as a tactic. But it seems to be a default we can’t stop our players slipping into.

Our failure to retain the ball has cost us dear in every tournament we’ve played in. And it is largely down to the formations and tactics that we deploy. It’s a terrible condemnation of the ability of our coaches that they can’t successfully instruct their players well enough to play just two different systems and it shows you how thick footballers are that they don’t seem able to work out how to do it consistently.

It made for an exciting game against Italy and England still stand a good chance of progressing by beating an already qualified Serbia side on Sunday. But we’d be fooling ourselves if we took this as a sign that England as a nation has reached a new level of quality. But one good thing to come out of the Italy game was the energy and commitment England showed but you need that and a little bit more tactical sophistication to win things.

John Nicholson writes each week for Football 365 and EPL Talk. You can listen to John’s wonderful stories on episode 30 and 45 of the EPL Talk Podcast, as well as purchase his excellent Footy Rocks book and order one of his unique rock’n roll T-shirts.
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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    June 16, 2007 at 6:48 am

    I couldn’t agree more with regards to the lack of tactical flexibility shown by the players and coaches alike.

    Unfortunately it goes deeper than that, our methods of identifying talented players and developing them is archaic in comparison to the likes of Brazil.

    We need to play more 4-a-side football with small (2×2 feet) goals where possesion of the ball, movement off the ball and individual skill is the path to victory.

    If you are passing by in your local park and see for example an U13 youth game going on look out for the best player…. I bet he’ll be the one who looks about 5 years older than everyone else and runs faster and hits the ball harder than the others. He will have no need for a smart and subtle football brain. Who knows you may well have played up against one of these players yourself, my bet is that you have and they never amounted to anything as an adult player.

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