After watching the England Italy game the other day there were a few things I wanted to discuss about our performance. I think there were a lot of positives, but there were also things that just weren’t smart enough. I only say these things as a proud Englishman who cares deeply about his national team and the health of our national game. I’m just sick of losing.
The stats tell a story
As a midfielder of some ability I couldn’t help but be amazed by the quality of the performance of Pirlo and De Rossi on Saturday night. Between the two of them they made 207 passes and helped the team achieve the highest pass completion rate (93.2%) of any team at a World Cup since 1966. England weren’t a million miles behind in the pass completion stats (90.8%), and they also had more shots (18), more shots on target (5) and more corners (9), but I saw a gulf in class, effectiveness and, most tellingly, experience.
Possession and short passing
Italy enjoyed 56% possession to England’s 44%, that’s not a huge difference until you look at what the teams did with their possession. Despite both enjoying around 93% short pass completion, Italy made 533 short passes while England made only 390. Italy made more short incisive, clever passes, they kept the ball close because they knew that in those conditions they didn’t want to be chasing the game and they were able to control both the tempo and the direction of play. As I said on Twitter on Saturday, it needs to be about “pass pass pass, not run, dribble, pass if you’re in a dead end”. In my opinion, we didn’t do enough with our possession and what we did just wasn’t smart enough.
Disrupting the routine
I also mentioned that we needed to disrupt the opposition in transition. Obviously, you can’t just belt around the park in conditions like the ones in Manaus, but you need to take up positions that nullify a threat, close off passing angles and make opposition players uncomfortable on the ball. Italy are a great passing side, but that is easier to pull off if there’s no one closing you down. That is what the Chileans and the Dutch did to such effect against Spain: they closed down every ball and shut off opportunities before they had a chance to become full-blown chances. Obviously, England couldn’t do that in the heat of Manaus, but in Sao Paolo for the Uruguay game the weather will suit us better and players like Henderson, Gerrard, Wellbeck and even Rooney will need to step up and get stuck in.
I noticed that a fair few of the England players were getting cramp, and even though Italy’s players were older, none of them went down. I don’t think this is due to lack of preparation or fitness on England’s part, it’s just because Italy dominated possession and England had to chase the ball for long periods of the game. That is emotionally and physically taxing and you can see the effect it had on even the youngest and fittest England players.
While Italy dominated possession for large periods, England had their fair share of pressure. They played more passes in the final third (31% to Italy’s 19%), they made more crosses (17 to 8), more corners (9 to 2) and more successful short passes in the final third (104 to 85). They just couldn’t put the ball in the net. Obviously some of that comes down to a bit of bad luck and some bad finishing, but player selection and positioning played a part too. I watched some of the coverage of the Chile Spain game and Danny Murphy mentioned that Chile make Alexis Sanchez feel like the man. Great point by Danny that. Strikers need to feel that love, and playing Rooney out on the left doesn’t do that. He needs to know he is the main man, and the only way to do that is to play him in his position. Number 10. Through the middle. He would then provide the platform the team needs to dictate and direct play in the final third, and he’ll be able to get on the end of a few chances. In terms of player choices, Henderson was deployed alongside Gerrard to nullify the threat of Italy, the Uruguayans don’t have that quality in the middle of the park. So I’d like to see Gerrard sat deep with Wilshere or even Barkley replacing Henderson. As the Chileans showed, attack is sometimes the best form of defence.
Having had a bit of time to think about England’s performance, I don’t think we were a million miles away. And with a few tweaks to personnel (Wilshere for Henderson), tactics (closing down the ball more aggressively in the middle) and positions (Rooney through the middle, and both full backs pushing on), England should have enough to get out of the group. The fact that it’s going to be wet and cool in Sao Paolo will also help. Sometimes simple things like that make all the difference.