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Euro 2012 preview: England | Zonal Marking

By Michael ***


Roy Hodgson was the right choice as England coach – at least in the short-term – but realistically, you can’t expect a side to play good football when their coach is appointed a month before the tournament.

Besides, even without considering the managerial situation or England’s terrible record of injuries in the last couple of weeks, England have their weakest set of players for many years. The alleged ‘golden generation’ (though this phrase has been used more frequently in a sarcastic tone than in praise of the players) are now slightly over the hill – Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand are all still doing a good job for their clubs, but their peak was a few years ago, and they never combined to great success then. There is a decent young generation coming through, but for various reasons they haven’t established themselves in the side yet.

Hodgson is left with an uninspiring squad that isn’t really one thing nor the other – it’s not blessed with great technical quality, nor does it have the feel of a settled, organised squad who will be defensively disciplined. Some of Hodgson’s decisions have been questionable – the biggest one might have been taken by the FA, rather than him – but he doesn’t have much to work with.

Organised and counter-attacking

Hodgson, of course, will play a certain style of football. His sides always play with two banks of four sitting deep behind the ball, and then two attackers – either two out-and-out strikers, or a target man in combination with a trickier player just behind – staying upfront. He wants a direct style of football – and ‘direct’ doesn’t mean thumped long balls towards the centre-forward (though that can hardly be ruled out if Andy Carroll starts), but simply passing the ball forward quickly, attacking the opposition defence before they have time to get themselves organised, and before the opposition midfield forms a secure barrier ahead of them.

Just as Hodgson has huge belief in the value of a defensively aware midfield for his own side, he wants to bypass the opposition midfield immediately. In the two friendlies England have played under Hodgson, against Norway and Belgium, they’ve won 1-0 with two very ‘Hodgson’ goals – scored by Young and Danny Welbeck. Young’s goal, in particular, was stereotypical of a Hodgson side – it came after a direct attack with a long accurate pass from defence, then the forwards attacked the defence quickly while they were positionally unbalanced.

This strategy means England won’t be overly concerned with dominating possession, and the first pass out of the defence will often be wayward. There’s a similarity here with the Zambia side that won this year’s African Cup of Nations tournament – two banks of four, two wide players that break directly towards goals from the flanks, one ‘passer’ and one destroyer in the midfield, and two forwards. Zambia recorded the lowest pass completion rate in the tournament, but they didn’t play bad football – it was just that they had such a commitment to get the ball to attackers quickly, that the first pass was often misplaced. If the first pass was accurate, the attacking quartet would break quickly and combine wonderfully.

First bank of four

Hodgson’s priority in training will have been the defence. Unfortunately, with Chelsea players joining up with the England camp late after their Champions League success, and with Gary Cahill now ruled out of the tournament, England haven’t had much time to get settled at the back. Cahill would have formed a solid Chelsea connection along with Terry and Cole (even the right-back, Glen Johnson, used to play for Chelsea) but his place will instead go to Joleon Lescott.

Lescott probably had the best season of any English centre-back, but he disturbs an existing partnership (he personally enjoyed a good partnership with another player in the squad, Phil Jagielka, at Everton) and also wants to play to the left of the two centre-backs, which is where Terry plays. This shouldn’t cause too much of a problem, but Terry always seems oddly disorientated when asked to play on the right – as demonstrated in the 4-1 defeat to Germany two years ago, when Matthew Upson was alongside him. At least the back four will be playing in front of Joe Hart, who has been one of the finest goalkeepers in Europe over the past two seasons.

Second bank of four

Ahead of the defence, Scott Parker will play the most disciplined role in central midfield, with Steven Gerrard having license to push on, and allowed to knock long passes out to the flanks. This is the zone that looked least impressive in the two qualifiers, partly because Parker still doesn’t look 100% fit, following a couple of niggling injuries towards the end of the season. A large part of Parker’s game is about chasing, and if he can’t chase, he’s much less of an asset.

Gerrard’s positional discipline will be questioned in a deep role, and though these concerns are probably slightly exaggerated, a Parker-Gerrard midfield duo isn’t as positionally intelligent as Hodgson would like. The Michael Carrick situation is too complex to go into, but he would have been extremely useful.

The real question marks are on the flanks. Theo Walcott didn’t feature until late in Hodgson’s second friendly, but this can be explained by him returning from a hamstring injury, and he will probably start on the right. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, James Milner, and Stewart Downing all started in the friendlies, and none were particularly impressive. The most likely player for the left is probably Milner, whose hard work, positional discipline and constant running means he should be perfect for Hodgson’s system. Downing also keeps shape well, but he had a terrible season at Liverpool, while Oxlade-Chamberlain seems ideal as a supersub.

Forwards

Upfront, there is the issue with Wayne Rooney – suspended for the first two games, but available for the final group game and any knock-out matches. Without him, England will play Young just behind the primary striker – again, his goal in Norway was perfect for this system and his lateral movement into the channels should give England forward passing options.

But who will play as the number nine? It seems a toss-up between Carroll and Welbeck – Carroll is the classic target man, but Welbeck’s fine goal against Belgium might get him the nod. For the France game, Welbeck is the better option – France struggle with balls played in behind the defence, as the centre-backs are poor at covering for each other. There have been suggestions that Downing starting makes Carroll more likely, and vice-versa, but that hardly worked for Liverpool this season.

What will happen when Rooney returns? It seems silly to predict it now, as it depends upon the performances of the four attacking players – but it’s likely that he’ll return to his number ten position, with Young replacing either Walcott or Milner, depending upon their performances. Alternatively, if Young has been disappointing he could be dropped, or if neither striker has done well, then Rooney could play upfront. In theory Rooney might not play – but that’s simply not going to happen, as it would require all of the front four playing so well that they’re undroppable. Jermain Defoe, along with Oxlade-Chamberlain, will be decent impact substitutes.

Conclusion

“I’d refer you to the Danes in 1992 and the Greeks in 2004,” Hodgson said, when asked if England stood a chance of winning the competition. He was probably going for an ‘anything can happen in football’ type comment, but the statement revealed Hodgson’s mindset – the role of underdog, and that will be reflected in England’s tactics.

Quick guide

Coach – Roy Hodgson

Formation – 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1

Key player – Ashley Young, at least until Rooney’s return

Strength – a fine goalkeeper, and probably a good defensive shape

Weakness – little attacking cohesion because of the lack of time spent playing in this system, plus a lot of injuries leaves them with inadequate back-ups

Key tactical question – how good are England’s transitions from defence to attack? This will determine their level of attacking threat

Key coach quote – “With 4-4-2, you’ve got ‘twos’ all over the field. I would always be looking to find a team that can play with a back four. Amongst the front six there a lot more options.”

Betfair odds – 16.0 (15/1)

Recommended bet – England to draw with France at 3.2

Further reading – The Anatomy of England by Jonathan Wilson, David Pleat on England’s midfield
 
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Same problems as usual. Unbalanced double pivot of Gerrard-Parker makes it difficult to initiate counter-attacks. Worryingly Ashley Young will start in the hole behind the striker and instead of dropping deep to link up play so as to salvage the situation, he is more likely to drift to the wings.

Not to mention Parker is not at full fitness

England truly lack a player such as Carrick/Lampard who can set them off in their transition from defense to attack. I predict 3 boring, dull games where we might scrape wins by punishing the opposition for their mistakes. 2 banks of 4 defending deep and hardly any chances being created
 
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I think you will struggle to get out of the group. Bottom with 0 points please.
 
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Read through all the zonal marking previews, seems like England's predicted tactics were most similar to Greece's, which isn't good.
 
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Read through all the zonal marking previews, seems like England's predicted tactics were most similar to Greece's, which isn't good.
Hey Greece won the Euro's a few years ago, so don't count them out.

I don't see England winning it, but I would be surprised if we don't get out of the group to be honest. I imagine we will get knocked out in the Quarters.
 
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Read through all the zonal marking previews, seems like England's predicted tactics were most similar to Greece's, which isn't good.
Why not? Tactics are just a style of play, not necessarily a measure of how effectively one plays it. Zambia won the ACON playing a style similar to Greece.
 
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Hey Greece won the Euro's a few years ago, so don't count them out.

I don't see England winning it, but I would be surprised if we don't get out of the group to be honest. I imagine we will get knocked out in the Quarters.
There's no doubt defensive tactics can be effective, I just find them very very dull. I'm not too confident, played ok against two average sides in Hodgson's first two games, no idea how they'll perform in the group. Englands progress will probably depend on how well the other teams in our group play. Ukraine will be boosted by home advantage, and France and Sweeden have the ability to perform very well. Especially France.

Why not? Tactics are just a style of play, not necessarily a measure of how effectively one plays it. Zambia won the ACON playing a style similar to Greece.
I'm a little worried that people are happy to compare England to footballing minows like Zambia and Greece, rather than aiming higher and calling for more exspansive football in the future. Considering the Premier League is one of the top two leagues in the world, I think its pretty bad that we as a national team, seem to be so average. Hoping that these tactics are only due to the lack of preperation time, and better things will happen in the future.
 
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I think we will struggle to get out of the group, i can see Ukraine last game being very very tricky!
 
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I'm a little worried that people are happy to compare England to footballing minows like Zambia and Greece, rather than aiming higher and calling for more exspansive football in the future. Considering the Premier League is one of the top two leagues in the world, I think its pretty bad that we as a national team, seem to be so average. Hoping that these tactics are only due to the lack of preperation time, and better things will happen in the future.
I can see your point, but we've tried expansive before, and it hasn't worked out for us. Who's to say we're not going to call for more expansive football in the future, but at the moment I'm happy for us to get back to basics in an attempt to win rather than go gung ho and lose by four. We've been pretty average at tournaments for the last decade or so, so perhaps it's time to try this different approach.
 
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I can see your point, but we've tried expansive before, and it hasn't worked out for us. Who's to say we're not going to call for more expansive football in the future, but at the moment I'm happy for us to get back to basics in an attempt to win rather than go gung ho and lose by four. We've been pretty average at tournaments for the last decade or so, so perhaps it's time to try this different approach.
I think to succeed in playing exspansive attacking football, it takes a long time to get right and would require patience, and the acceptance that success will come in the future, rather than the present. Going back and forth between different styles and tactics for short term gains, dosen't allow us to develop any particular style, its a little short sighted.

I'm not convinced that this style of play will bring us much more sucess than when we tried to play exspansive attacking football, and may set us back a few years.
 
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I think to succeed in playing exspansive attacking football, it takes a long time to get right and would require patience, and the acceptance that success will come in the future, rather than the present. Going back and forth between different styles and tactics for short term gains, dosen't allow us to develop any particular style, its a little short sighted.

I'm not convinced that this style of play will bring us much more sucess than when we tried to play exspansive attacking football, and may set us back a few years.
You're right, and as such one month is nowhere near enough for Hodgson to turn England into a fluid and expansive attacking team. Far better we drudge our way through to the quarters playing dreary stuff than to try and play expansively and fail to get out of the group. Playing nice football can wait until after the Euros.
 
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I think to succeed in playing exspansive attacking football, it takes a long time to get right and would require patience, and the acceptance that success will come in the future, rather than the present. Going back and forth between different styles and tactics for short term gains, dosen't allow us to develop any particular style, its a little short sighted.

I'm not convinced that this style of play will bring us much more sucess than when we tried to play exspansive attacking football, and may set us back a few years.
You do realise that our manager has had literally one month to work his tactics with the team. Implementing a tactic that is free flowing expansive attacking ***, with defensive stability, as you said, takes time. We need to remember what it's like to win games before we try to win games in an attractive manner.
 
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You're right, and as such one month is nowhere near enough for Hodgson to turn England into a fluid and expansive attacking team. Far better we drudge our way through to the quarters playing dreary stuff than to try and play expansively and fail to get out of the group. Playing nice football can wait until after the Euros.
Probem is I'd be happy if it was just one tournament of playing dreary football, but it could easily carry on for longer, and might stunt future progress if England does want to play exspansive football in the future. Hodgson (so far) hasn't been a very inventive manager, and isn't one to promote playing exspansive football, this is true even when he was at Inter and had great players, even then he reverted to type. I'm not saying he's a bad manager (I think he's a very good well organised coach) just don't think he's the right man to begin the changes required for England to start playing: attractive, exspansive football in the future.

Hopefully I'm wrong and he'll improve England in the future.

You do realise that our manager has had literally one month to work his tactics with the team. Implementing a tactic that is free flowing expansive attacking ***, with defensive stability, as you said, takes time. We need to remember what it's like to win games before we try to win games in an attractive manner.
"Hoping that these tactics are only due to the lack of preperation time, and better things will happen in the future." As I said earlier...

Just not sure Hodgson is the right man to start the changes that are needed in the National team.
 
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Probem is I'd be happy if it was just one tournament of playing dreary football, but it could easily carry on for longer, and might stunt future progress if England does want to play exspansive football in the future. Hodgson (so far) hasn't been a very inventive manager, and isn't one to promote playing exspansive football, this is true even when he was at Inter and had great players, even then he reverted to type (however I do think he's a good manager, a lot of positives in getting things back to basics, and defending well).

Hopefully I'm wrong and he'll improve England in the future.
Meh, we can only go on what's happened so far. Personally I agree, I reckon Hodgson won't ever make us an expansive and attacking football nation, but frankly I don't mind too much. If the likes of Uruguay can get further in the World Cup and continent competition than we have in the past decade by playing functional football, then I'd rather we did that. It's all up for debate, really, the age-old substance vs style argument. But it's pretty moot at the moment: we're going into this tournament playing a functional 4-4-1-1, and I reckon that's how it will stay.
 
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Meh, we can only go on what's happened so far. Personally I agree, I reckon Hodgson won't ever make us an expansive and attacking football nation, but frankly I don't mind too much. If the likes of Uruguay can get further in the World Cup and continent competition than we have in the past decade by playing functional football, then I'd rather we did that. It's all up for debate, really, the age-old substance vs style argument. But it's pretty moot at the moment: we're going into this tournament playing a functional 4-4-1-1, and I reckon that's how it will stay.
Ah come on mate, fair enough saying the system of Uruguay is "functional football" - but they're playing some great great flair players in that team who seem to unleash at just the right moment (thinking mainly of Suarez and Cavani here). Forlan also knew how to find the net, not sure if we have any of those three elements in our current side.
 
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My own opinion on our side is that we'll definitely have enough to qualify in second place of our group, and if everything else goes to plan, we'll meet Spain and get knocked out in normal time 2-0. Which seems to be just about right from a rational perspective.
 
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Ah come on mate, fair enough saying the system of Uruguay is "functional football" - but they're playing some great great flair players in that team who seem to unleash at just the right moment (thinking mainly of Suarez and Cavani here). Forlan also knew how to find the net, not sure if we have any of those three elements in our current side.
Functional football does not necessarily have to mean boring/defensive football. People often confuse the two. Look at Germany who is everyone's favourite team in WC 2010 and they played reactive football
 
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Functional football does not necessarily have to mean boring/defensive football. People often confuse the two. Look at Germany who is everyone's favourite team in WC 2010 and they played reactive football
I suppose I don't really agree on the interpretation of this style of football, maybe that's why I'm confused by the term "functional football". For me it suggestions playing the easy passes without getting out of position too much.

Uruguay and particularly Germany excelled at the last World cup as they always had two or three off the ball runners getting in between the channels - mainly Suarez for Uruguay and Ozil for Germany. Strikes me as being balanced but very fluid and creative.

All the things we're not..
 
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I suppose I don't really agree on the interpretation of this style of football, maybe that's why I'm confused by the term "functional football". For me it suggestions playing the easy passes without getting out of position too much.

Uruguay and particularly Germany excelled at the last World cup as they always had two or three off the ball runners getting in between the channels - mainly Suarez for Uruguay and Ozil for Germany. Strikes me as being balanced but very fluid and creative.

All the things we're not..
I understand what you mean. England seemed to have taken it to a certain extreme by defending so deep along with their inability to create good chances on the counter which teams like Germany/Uruguay could do due to the talent they had in the squad
 
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Ah come on mate, fair enough saying the system of Uruguay is "functional football" - but they're playing some great great flair players in that team who seem to unleash at just the right moment (thinking mainly of Suarez and Cavani here). Forlan also knew how to find the net, not sure if we have any of those three elements in our current side.
Right, but the entire base of the side was there to give those players a chance to release that flair. Indeed, in the World Cup Uruguay often didn't field one of those two you mentioned (Cavani) in favour of greater balance. Perez and Arevalo were a constant, both unambitious but energetic and reliable destroyers in midfield. Often, they favoured using (nominal left-back) Alvaro Pereira as a left winger, another indication of their preference of function and solidity over flair. Most of all, though, they always adapted their system to fit the opposition, a reactive system that is a hallmark of functional sides.

If we disregard Cavani as being a player extraneous to their system (which he was in the World Cup and even more so in their Copa America win in which Uruguay mostly stuck to a narrow 4-4-1-1), we can draw pretty obvious parallels between Forlan and Rooney, both of whom are clinical strikers who enjoy dropping off a front man, and arguably do their best work in the hole. Now England have no substitute for Luis Suarez directly, but Danny Welbeck's relatively close, being a quick, hard working, creative forward. England have plenty of flair players - more, in fact, that Uruguay, who past the three of Suarez, Forlan and Cavani really don't have much to offer in that department - and if we can build the same kind of stable platform Uruguay did, we're taking major steps towards improvement.


Oh, and some news: Jermain Defoe has flown home after the sad death of his father.
 
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