Way back in 1999 a Champions League quarter-final took place between Real Madrid and title defenders Manchester United. That year Real Madrid, under John Toshack, had become one of the first European giants to field a 4-2-3-1. Sir Alex Ferguson, meanwhile, kept faith in a 4-4-2 that hadn’t changed much from the reds’ European title winning team.
Despite the Bernebeu leg of the tie finishing in a draw, United were outplayed and outgunned at Old Trafford in a truly mesmeric display that ended 3-2 in Madrid’s favour. The 4-4-2 had not only been beaten, it had been obliterated.
Afterwards, convinced that a five-man midfield was the thing of the future, Sir Alex set about remolding the squad around a single focal point; a single striker: Ruud van Nistelrooy. France only a year previous had lifted the World Cup with a variant of Madrid’s five-man midfield and other early adopters, such as Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan, went on to similar success in the 00’s.
Now, over a decade later, Fabio Capello appears to have just learned this lesson in tactical evolution. The Italians decision to field, and then refusal to change a rigid 4-4-2 against a 4-2-3-1, smacks of stubbornness and tactical naivety. More importantly for England fans, it became the deciding factor in sending England home humiliated.
Admittedly, it is hard to defend the subpar efforts of the players in the England team – and they won’t find any sympathy here – but Capello’s insistence on 4-4-2 should undoubtedly bare some, if not the majority, of the blame.
The reason for the 4-2-3-1’s success over a 4-4-2 is simply the extra man in midfield. Draw it on a chalkboard and this is self-evident. Kevin Keegan may even tell you. Up against the central duo of Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard was Sami Khedira – the destroyer, Bastien Schweinsteiger – the passer, and the superlative Mesut Ozil – the trequartista.
Germany, therefore, always had an extra man free, meaning that at some point, either Schweinsteiger or Ozil would be blessed with time on the ball. Unfortunately for England, either of them is capable of an incisive pass. Once England acquired the ball, Germany’s midfield dominance then required Steven Gerrard or James Milner to tuck in to offer a pass or distract the extra man. England’s width, the element that had been their most effective instrument against Slovenia, was sacrificed to just control the ball.
Crosses, as demonstrated by Matthew Upson’s header and Serbia’s Milan Jovanovic’s goal in the group stages, have caused Germans problems throughout the tournament so far, but they were suicidally limited by England’s lack of width because of the knock-on effect caused by Germany’s extra midfielder.
The key to Germany’s early chances, however, didn’t directly come from being outnumbered in midfield. Instead, it was Mesut Ozil’s intelligent positioning, roaming just behind Gareth Barry and in front of the centre-backs that tore England apart. Barry, in lackluster reply, simply let Ozil drift.
In the first goal, Ozil drifted unwatched beyond Barry, taking with him the interest of John Terry who made a major error – not his only one of the day – by misjudging the flight of the ball. Beyond Terry, Miroslav Klose seized his opportunity and ran in behind him.
Moments later, Ozil attracted the attention of John Terry again (who, in his defence is playing on the wrong side of central defence), Klose drifted left taking Upson with him, leaving a mammoth opening between Terry and Glen Johnson for Thomas Muller to exploit. The man over, Lukasz Podolski, had enough time to correct his poor first touch before putting the ball home. It was schoolboy defending.
In the review of the England game against Slovenia, it was warned that Gareth Barry’s inability to retain possession in advanced areas would not go unpunished against the Germans. The Manchester City midfielder didn’t disappoint. Once again, with his ability on the ball under question from nearby defenders, Barry lost the ball on the edge of the opposition’s penalty area. With England exposed, they were dutifully punished seconds later by Muller after an emphatic counter-attack.
James Milner repeated the feat again to emphasize the point that when England players are put under pressure in tight areas none of them really have the technical ability to retain the ball. Though, it should also be said that the players cause is not helped by the lack of support – yet another problem that’s been endemic in England’s World Cup campaign.
Capello will once again be criticized for not making any tactical changes. He clearly needed to make them but whether England had the personnel to go like-for-like is debatable. England have no recognized trequartista or a destroyer.
Ozil was immense yesterday in what is such an important position. You only have to look at Italy’s Claudio Marchisio’s performance against Paraguay to see how wrong it can go and how it can effect the entire team’s performance. Whether Gerrard could operate there is up for debate, but it has worked to some degree at club level.
As for a destroyer, England have no one in the current 23-man squad capable of that role. Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry are not capable or are unwilling to track back and cover the defence and there were a plethora of occasions in the campaign in which the opposition waltzed through the middle with England’s central midfielders just watching on in envy. Michael Carrick may have been slightly better than Barry, but England, in the end, severely missed the abilities of Owen Hargreaves who was their player of the tournament in their last outing in Germany.
Several analysts in the build-up to the game claimed that England had the quality to win the game against Germany on paper. They focused on the individuals, the man-for-man, and age and experience. All factors which quickly became irrelevant as England’s immense fundamental problems unfurled on the pitch. The movement was minimal, the support was nonexistent and any offensive and defensive cohesion had been eradicated; there was no ingenuity, no intelligent play, insufficient communication and no constructive teamwork. Most importantly of all, the tactics were unbelievably flawed by the German setup.
The manager, the players, and most importantly, the FA, need to return to the drawing board. Again.
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