England v Spain 12 Nov 2011

Pattern of Play

Lessons From What’s Poor

I am not really into Horse Racing but when I was invited by a then work partner to a corporate day at Wetherby races, I made the effort to get into it. I studied the form guide in The Guardian’s racing pages on the train and bought myself a copy of The Racing Post. I started off well, spotting a bit of value in the first race, picking a winner in the second. In about the fourth race of the day there was a small field of five horses, with one clear favourite. It was already about half-a-mile clear of the rest of the field when it fell, and the sigh from the whole course was audible. That was the day I should have learned never to bet on a dead cert.

But, I made the same mistake again on Saturday, and also went against my normal instinct, of betting against my own team. In my defence, it was hard to predict anything other than a Spain win against England. Spain, the European and World Champions, were coming to Wembley at full-strength, against a home side that has not established any sense of direction under Fabio Capello and whose limitations were embarrassingly exposed at the highest level in South Africa last summer.

Whereas the Spain side was built largely from the two strongest clubs sides in World Football at the moment, Barcelona and Real Madrid, we had a team largely derived from the players, past and present, of Aston Villa and Everton.

The 2010 World Cup showed that the English “Golden Generation” was a myth, promoted by lazy journalists, with the main beneficiary the brand of the Premier League. But it was the flaws of the Premier League, where players are able to continually lose possession without any consequence, which led some of the more talented and experienced players of the England Squad in 2010 to play the naive football that was ruthlessly punished by Germany.

Meanwhile Spain have shown they have a golden generation of their own and it is the real deal. The signs were there when they put England to the sword in a friendly in late 2004, when Xavi bossed the game, the hub of a passing and moving game. And they have gone on to deliver, first in the European Championship in 2008, and then in South Africa.

The last time England played reigning World Champions, I was at the old Empire Stadium as a French side clinically put us away 2-0. An England team with better players than we had on Saturday, including Ince, Shearer, Beckham, Owen and Anderton were swept aside. This England team has no one comparable to those players, and only Scott Parker (for Jamie Redknapp), would have considerably improved that side from the players that played against on Saturday.

The French four that started that game was the best back four as a unit that I have ever seen, and the Spanish front six was comparable as an International unit. They weren’t playing with an out-and-out central striker, with David Silva playing in the role that Lionel Messi plays for Barcelona, with Xavi pushing on down the right, and David Villa, no doubt to his frustration, playing from the left. Andreas Iniesta was paying through the middle, behind arguably the best two sitting midfielders in the game for many a year – Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso – who both do the simple things so well, playing with elegance and intelligence.

I was expecting a similar outcome to that cold February evening in 1999. Howard Wilkinson was our Manager that night, and last summer showed, that in eleven years, tactically we hadn’t moved too much further from the predilection for the long ball showed that night.

We were tactically poor in the World Cup, with the central midfield emptying even when both full-backs were high up the field and there was no need to panic, although the qualification games for Euro 2012 has shown progression in that area at least. Finally Capello has been more willing to play a 4-2-3-1 system, with two midfielders players behind four fluid forward players, a system the Spanish, Germans and Dutch all used to great effect last summer.

The wooden 4-4-2, a monkey on the back of England teams at International level, apart from the brief respite under the consecutive reigns of Venables and Hoddle, and which seemed to be Capello’s safety net from his days at Milan, finally seems to have been ditched. Also, Scott Parker, criminally culled from the 2010 World Cup squad, despite having been impressive all the previous season and having reportedly starred in training, has finally been recognised as a ‘must’ in the team.

Of course Parker’s exclusion last summer was not Capello’s only bizarre decision in South Africa; he picked Rob Green ahead of both David James and Joe Hart against the USA, and selected Jamie Carragher, who was coming off a season in which he had often played at right-back and in which his form was such that he himself said he considered retiring, ahead of Michael Dawson at centre-back, and who, in contrast, had a fantastic season. Like Parker, Dawson was also reportedly excellent in England’s training sessions before the squad was cut to 23, anecdotal evidence which combined with the subsequent performances on the pitch that suggested something was amiss with the selection policy.

Things seemed to have improved though and on Saturday, Parker, just as he has for Spurs all season, brilliantly protected the back four, and was deservedly named Man-of-the Match. For all of England’s technical failings – and on Saturday those flaws were as glaring as they had been in the summer, with a failure to keep the ball – finally, there was some logic to the tactics; with the back four tucked in, defending the 18-yard box, Parker just in front of them, and the wide midfielders dropping deep to deny Spain space. Unfortunately this was the shape at the start of the game, rather than in the final minutes of a cup final when we were defending a lead with a man down, but at least there was some thinking in the plan, however limited in ambition.

If everything was even, Spain should have won the game. And at odds of 10/11, that was as near enough even for me, and too tempting to turn down. As the teams kicked-off, I said I thought Spain would dominate possession by a percentage of 72 to 28. As it was Spain finished with 71% possession (the bet I should have had).

But, they failed to tellingly get behind England. This was partly due to the England’s resilience, and the discipline in retaining their shape, but also due to a profligacy that Barcelona have also shown at times, in failing to kill teams off. Spain are not as good as Barcelona, not just because they don’t have Messi, but also because Barcelona have taken the game to another level, which no other side is near at the moment, both with their pressing game (which Xavi in particular displayed on Saturday in the rare moments England had the ball in the first-half) to their passing out from the goalkeeper.

Spain aren’t a million miles away though, with the core of Barca’s Spanish players, and the same system. And there was always the feeling that even if they went in at 0-0 at half-time they would be patient enough to wait for their chances, especially if the game opened up.

But while the game remained goalless England still had a chance, and as I said to a mate at half-time, there could always be a chance from a set-piece. Spain made three changes at half-time, and while none of the players coming on (Mata, Reina, Fabregas) are bad, none were as good as the players they replaced (Silva, Casillas, Iniesta). The changes allowed David Villa to play centrally, but within four minutes of the restart Darren Bent’s superb header from a set-piece beat Riena, and Frank Lampard tapped into an empty net.

It’s a funny old game. Spain continued to dominate possession, but England now had something to hold on to, and continuing changes by Spain, plus the indiscipline of Fabregas, meant Spain never really put England under pressure as they should have, and England won the game.

England made changes as well. Danny Wellbeck looked a much classier player than Darren Bent, and Jack Rodwell, who I saw score at Wembley in the England/Spain Under-16 friendly in 2007, came on for Phil Jones in midfield. The fact that both Jones and Rodwell are naturally centre-backs suggests there may be a realisation of the tactical deficiencies showed in the summer, while also, conversely, crystallizing a dearth of creative talent.

England’s best hope for Euro 2012 may yet be youth, as Capello hinted afterwards. Lampard, though captain and goalscorer, was in no-man’s land for most of the game, whereas Rodwell looked good when he came on, breaking forward when he had the chance. But it is worth noting that while England may need to look to players unproven at any significant level next summer, the current Spain team have matured to their peak; of the Spain Under-16s that played at Wembley in 2007, the better players, like Thiago, showed their skills at the last Under 21 tournament, and are now effectively reserves; and that Spain U-21 team looked light-years ahead of the England U-21 team when they met in that tournament last summer, yet England’s better players – Phil Jones, Kyle Walker, Chris Smalling and Daniel Sturridge are all, correctly, contenders for Euro 2012.

England drew that Under-21 group game in the end, a 1-1 draw that didn’t tell the full story, much as Saturday’s 1-0 wasn’t a true reflection of the state of the teams. England’s young players may yet develop over the season before Euro 2012, and if we qualify form the group stages, Wayne Rooney is a match-winner waiting in the wings. But it is asking a lot to win games with such little possession.

England have learnt lessons since last summer, but Saturday gave little real hope for Euro 2012. There is always the chance of an upset when three results are possible between two teams, but the chances are, at the highest level, in a competitive game, the better team will win. The people that were likely be celebrating the most after the final whistle on Saturday were probably called William Hill, Stan James, Victor Chandler and Paddy Power.


Originally published on Moving The Goalposts http://melstarsg.blogspot.com/

14 November 2012

The Substantive Football Columnist Mel Gomes’ new e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to buy for a Kindle from Amazon for £4.27 inc VAT, and for a number of other formats including as a PDF, an online download and for Apple, Palm and Sony hand-held devices from Smashwords. With recollections of matches including Clasicos, Milan Derbies and Diego Maradona’s one appearance at White Hart Lane, it covers a journey over land and sea in the 2010-11 Champions League, documenting football at the highest level in the shadow of a sport where money is now the driver. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.