Despite coming out of the game with a 4-0 win, England’s World Cup Qualifier performance against Malta wasn’t exactly inspiring, especially considering the level of opposition.
As demonstrated by the above graphics from 11tegen11 (and, indeed, obvious to anyone watching the game at the time), England’s attack struggled to create any kind of quality chances until Kane opened the scoring in the 53rd minute.
Also interesting is England’s passmap, which helps to illustrate some of the problems to be discussed in this piece. It shows a high amount of passes between the defensive midfielders and full-backs in particular, as well as the centre-backs and wingers – all players who spent a lot of their time outside the opposition’s defensive shape. Alli and Kane cut isolated figures, with few links to other players, especially to the defensive midfielders.
Inefficient spacing in the 1st and 2nd lines
The first problem which can be identified during build-up play is the poor structure in the first lines caused by the positioning of Livermore and Henderson with respect to the positioning of the centre-backs.
They often positioned themselves in the same vertical line as Cahill and Jones, which is a problem for a couple of reasons. Firstly, if they were to receive a pass from one of the centre-backs in this position, they would receive it facing their own goal, which, as discussed before on this blog, is a difficult situation to receive in, mostly due to the poor field of vision for the receiver. Vertical passes with the recipient facing their own goal isn’t inherently bad of course, it can be a useful tool for moving up the pitch when used in conjunction with layoffs and 3rd man runs, however in this case their only option would be to pass back to the centre-back. This in itself can also be useful in order to attract opposition pressure intentionally, as receiving with poor field of view is a pressing trigger for many teams, however England were clearly not using it in this way.
The second issue with double-pivots using a 2-2 structure in buildup is the risk that due to being in the same vertical line as the centre-backs, the defensive midfielders may end up blocking passing lanes into their own teammates in higher zones. This not only slows buildup and prevents England from potentially being able to reach dangerous zones close to the opponent’s goal, but it also means that there are simply less passing options for the centre-back on the ball.
Even aside from these issues, in the scene above poor spacing is shown with Henderson standing in a fairly redundant position close to Jones, only serving to draw the opposition player closer to Jones, giving him less space to move forward into if he were to receive the ball. In this scene the opposition player in question can easily get access to Henderson and Jones without moving a large distance.
A possible solution for England, or other teams using a 4-2-3-1 might be to use a 3-1 or diamond staggering in the first two lines. Not only does this help with the problem of forward passing lanes being blocked, but it also gives better coverage of the pitch with the two widest players in the diamond having more of an opportunity to play from the halfspaces, which isn’t easily afforded in a 2-2. Overall, a 3+1 tends to be better connected and easier to construct play from than the 2-2 structure used by England.
The idea of having wingers play very wide, and full-backs that stay deeper and narrower isn’t an unfamiliar one for most people, however it was fairly strange to see this concept used alongside a double-pivot. It wouldn’t really be accurate to use the team ‘inverted full-backs’, Walker and Bertrand didn’t play as narrow as we have seen full-backs do under Pep Guardiola at Bayern and City. England’s full-backs rarely overlapped their winger, instead staying deeper between the wing and the halfspace. The fact that they didn’t play completely narrow was of course due to the fact that England already had, as mentioned, two defensive midfielders in Livermore and Henderson, meaning that if the full-backs came inside they’d be far too close to the central midfielders making for very poor spacing.
As a result, the roles of England’s full-backs in possession didn’t really fit well within the team. They didn’t often make overlapping or overlapping runs, instead they mostly stayed alongside the double pivot, giving England double wing occupation in buildup at times. This resulted in a fairly defensive structure in possession for England, with as many as six outfield players behind the ball at a time.
This of course made England’s defensive transition fairly strong due to the amount of players behind the ball, however, in terms of finding a balance between stability and risk, it could be said that England’s structure is too risk-averse, especially given the quality of opponent and their lack of counter-attacking threat.
The idea of not having the full-backs overlapping, again, isn’t inherently bad. Especially when you have wingers such as Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sterling who are strong during 1v1 dribbling situations, it is reasonable to not want full-backs overlapping as this may bring extra opponents into the area trying to track the run of the full-back, which would take away the opportunity for the winger to isolate his opponent and play 1v1. However, if the strategy of allowing the wingers to play 1v1 is to be used, the full-backs need to be integrated better than they were against Malta.
Aside from their fairly passive role, England’s full-backs didn’t really adapt well to movements from the wingers in front of them. On the occasions where an England winger did move inside, the Malta full-backs would usually mark them tightly, meaning that they vacated space on the wing.
However, as shown in the scene above, the space wasn’t filled by an onrushing full-back as one might usually expect. Oxlade-Chamberlain creates space by dragging his defender inside, however Walker doesn’t move, and the potential advantage is lost. The next problem to be addressed is also present in the above scene, which is the poor occupation of space inside by England inside Malta’s defensive block.
Poor central occupation
The obvious effect of having many players behind the ball, and wingers who stay towards the touchlines, is a weak occupation of central spaces within the opponent’s shape. With such a poor structure it becomes very difficult to move the ball forward purposefully and break opposition lines. Instead, the dreaded u-shaped circulation emerges, where teams move the ball from touchline to touchline without penetrating the opposition’s block, due to a lack of players occupying spaces inside it.
Another problem caused by England’s disconnected structure was the fact that even when the opposition block was penetrated, there was no opportunity for combination play for the receiving player.
For example in the scene above, Alli receives the ball however he cannot combine with any other attackers as they are either marked or simply too far away for fast combination play to take place, and he is dispossessed.
As a result of it being almost impossible to construct play through the centre due to the aforementioned structural issues, England were reliant on building down the wings with passes into the channels behind the Malta defence. Having players running into depth is always useful but it’s far less advantageous when they chase a pass down the line and end up receiving the ball facing the corner-flag and with a defender on their back.
An article dedicated to criticising tactical issues in a team that won the game in question 4-0 might seem unfair, however results don’t always align with performances. England may be able to get away with glaring tactical issues against lower-level opposition, however against stronger teams, they are unlikely to be able to do the same, which is why it is important to analyse the performance by it’s own merits, not based on the outcome.