Defense In Place, How Does England Pave a Way Forward?

Those who kept reminding us about France’s talent forgot to mention inexperience. Franck Ribery and Florent Malouda have been mainstays for some time, but amongst the other key contributors to Les Bleus’ attack, there’s no big tournament experience. Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri were controversial omissions from the ill-fated World Cup squad, while Yohan Cabaye’s ascendancy was fueled by Lille’s recent rise in Ligue 1.

That inexperience was on display on Monday, though it wasn’t all the players’ fault. In the attacking third, France brought Samir Nasri in from the right, playing him behind Karim Benzema. The deployment also had the effect of cutting off Franck Ribery, who was left to probe England’s right side with few chances to come onto his right foot. As France moved back in from the left, the three players left to finish the move were Benzema, Nasri and Cabaye (with another inexperienced Bleu, Mathieu Debuchy pushing into the vacated space on the right).

Most teams would love to rely on Benzema and Nasri, but late in the match, there was a lack of urgency that portrayed youthful naiveté sorting going through the motions of a new experience. As a weary England were backed farther and farther into their third – the languor of match spent chasing the French leaving their starting midfield drained – Nasri failed to seize the moment. The match’s best attacking player never grabbed the proverbial scuff of the neck, leaving France’s final 15 minutes scarcely more effective than their first. Blanc pursued the result with Hatem Ben Arfa and Marvin Martin – France even brought Ribery into Nasri’s position, moving Nasri back wide – but it was too late. Les Bleus’ moment was near the hour mark, when Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker started wilting.

Even with his midfielders spent at the final whistle, Roy Hodgson seemed to have gotten things right. Post-match punditry offered they’d like to see England do more going forward, but what team doesn’t. That aspiration has to be balanced against what you’re giving up defensively. With England unlikely to develop the type of possession-based attack that can defend through greed, their attacking ambitions will often be part of a zero-sum game. Given how close France was to breaking England’s defense, it’s hard to justify offsetting the balance.

That’s not to say there weren’t places England could have been better. As noted pre-match, Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain was an enticing option on the left, potentially combining with Ashley Cole. While we saw a couple of moments where “Ox,” Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck’s speed dilated France pupils, Hodgson never tried to exploit the advantage. If something came of the trio’s quickness, so be it, but it was going to have to come within the system, which meant no throwing Ashley Cole forward. Matchup advantages are for tactics blogs.

Not that it’s ever that simple. France’s approach didn’t make it easy for England to attack down their left. As we’ve seen from Manchester United since they acquired Patrice Evra, heavily leaning to one side of attack (in United’s case, the right) also induces the other team to stay on that side. While United’s never been too concerned about teams attacking Evra, knowing teams are likely to come back through United’s right has justify using Wes Brown, John O’Shea, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones at right back. So few Premier League sides have deep midfield distributors needed to switch the field of play. United can leave Patrice Evra to hold down an entire flank.

In theory, the England national team has a distributor that can, part of the reason they should have done more down their left. The logic behind putting Steven Gerrard in a deep midfield position is to use his distribution as a fulcrum for attack. He should be able to take advantage of Scott Parker’s work and, with one touch, hit Ox, Young, or Welbeck. If he can’t, England would be better using James Milner in central midfield.

Gerrard flashed some of those qualities on Monday, but he was inconsistent. In the 14th minute he hit Ashley Young with a dream ball, putting the Manchester United behind the defense from deep within England’s half. Gerrard assisted on England’s only goal, but in the 63rd minute we saw something that’s become common over that last two years. An ambitious ball targeting Glen Johnson was telegraphed, Gerrard unable to execute quickly enough. Karim Benzema intercepted the pass, nearly starting a break for France.

England can’t rely on Gerrard alone, prompting the question that will define that next three days: How does England create more going forward?

There are going to be calls for England to play a more expansive game against Sweden and Ukraine, but even causal Premier League fans know Hodgson’s not going to change his system. Whatever ideas are put forth, they need to fit within the 4-4-2 (4-4-1-1) Hodgson uses.

There is, however, and alternative vision. With England still undefeated under Hodgson, some would prefer not fixing something that isn’t broken. With Sweden and Ukraine on the horizon, why not just stay the course? After all, if it was good enough to draw France, it will be good enough to get out of Group D.

That’s probably true, but unless England makes some adjustments, they’ll reach a quarterfinal match with Spain, Italy or Croatia being no more capable of scoring goals than they were at the start of the tournament. Yes, they’ll have Wayne Rooney back, but the competition will be tougher. They won’t just be facing better teams. They’ll be facing teams that have had multiple games to fine-tune their squads.

England needs to do the same. Instead of looking at France a moral victory and reason to persist with an identical approach, England must see it as a point in a much longer road. They can’t rest on this performance. Against Sweden and Ukraine, they need to build on this result; else, they’re setting themselves up to be a sacrificial lamb in the quarterfinals.

For some, that may be enough. Given the turmoil the team has endured since calling camp (and the uncertainty surrounding the team since Fabio Capello’s resignation), the final eight is farther than many have them going. Perhaps England is still in a take what they can get mode and should worry about making the quarters. Whatever happens once they qualify, so be it, but the quarters alone would be an accomplishment.

All that’s a long way off. There are two more games in Group D and three days before Engalnd plays Sweden. There’s no need to undo ambition; however, with their opening match mission accomplished, England resume training knowing they’ve laid a path to the knockout stage.

Loose ends

  • For a team that spent so much time backed into their own penalty area, England found out very little about their center halves. John Terry and Joleon Lescott gave good performances, but with Scott Parker blocking and intercepting so many balls before they hit the back line (and France choosing to shoot from deep quite often), Terry and Lescott had a reasonably straight-forward day.
  • Gerrard’s positioning started to fail him in the second half. Perhaps it was fatigue, because in the 69th minute – after he took himself too far up field – he didn’t even bother getting back. Thankfully, Oxlade-Chamberlain covered for him.
  • For all the good things Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young did, you’d like to see them stay onside a bit more, particularly if England’s transition will rely on hitting them with passes out of the back. France’s defense deserves credit for earning so many whistles, but you can’t get a whistle if an attacker hasn’t put himself in position to be caught.When Wayne Rooney returns, who do you sacrifice? Oxlade-Chamberlain? Milner? Welbeck? Young? Hodgson might take this match-to-match, his decision based on the opponent. Today, Milner should have been the odd man out.

Richard Farley is a freelance journalist and a former host of the EPL Talk Podcast. His work is prominently featured in NBC Sports’ soccer coverage. You can follow him on Twitter at @richardfarley.

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