WE’VE QUALIFIED, HUZZAH!
We’re on top of the world, every englishman is basking in the euphoria of qualification, skipping to work or school and counting the days until it all starts. The build up begins and the squad is announced, same old faces, no one exciting but nevertheless the optimism remains. But then it happens. The harsh reality of the situation hit us like a double-decker London Bus. In the face. We struggle to draw a warm up game against *enter extremely low ranked team here* and eventually find ourselves against a top 5 team in the Last Sixteen due to a tame display in the group stages. We get beaten comfortably, praise a valiant effort despite there not actually being one, then become extremely bitter and start blaming everyone etcetera, etcetera…
Cue headlines like this…
Yet with two solid, and more importantly, promising performances could Brazil 2014 be the tournament in which we do ourselves proud? Will it be Blighty’s time to shine on a global stage at last? Or will this all too familiar story come to light once more? I know its almost idiotic to suggest anything different as we have all seen this happen too many times. I’m also aware that I should know better than to raise these pre-World Cup hopes to even higher and even more unrealistic heights. Yet I feel like there has been an important change to England’s approach, a change that could well see the birth of an all conquering English national team. (Caution! May contain hyperbole)
However, It would be unfair not to reiterate the fact none of us should get too excited, as after all this observation has been made (in classic English fashion) after winning only two game. On a competitive stage, we’re still probably going to be s**t as when it matters we seem to let people play how they want to play. In recent tournaments we have played within our shell and embraced the tactic of the minnow, something epitomised by Hodgons’s counterintuitive team selection. Until now, previous matches have seen an attacking right back paired with a poor right midfielder, a concept which not only underpins our apparent tactical inefficiency, but more significantly brings with it an inherently negative approach to the game. We have been so persistent in accommodating the likes of Glen Johnson, that in order to cover for his defensive frailties, our right winger has had to be defensive minded. This in itself is enough to completely dismantle any team’s game plan as surely the basic ideals of football suggest your defenders should defend and your attackers should attack?
Moreover, if they are incapable of doing that, then are they really the best choice? Anyway, by undermining the integrity of other positions on the pitch – just so Glen Johnson can frolic in the final third – especially in matches of any significance, our failures lie in the negative mindset this team selection induces as we seem to become so concerned with the opposition’s potential attacking threat that we were willing to sacrifice our own in an attempt to counter it. The reason this angered me so much is simply because I am a staunch advocate of the age old cliché attack is the best form of defence, because it really is! Our previous team composition meant not only were we inviting the opposition to attack us, but when we finally got the ball the lack of attacking options and ideas we had ourselves was laughable. But (the bold typeface is important, as this is where the optimism begins) Hodgson’s recent use of Townsend finally suggested that he is ready to change his style of play.
Firstly, to put into context why I believe these so far unknown changes to be so important, lets consider the idea that every club outfit and national team alike should be playing to their strengths. For example, Spain are blessed with players with perfect technique, thus dominate the game through pinpoint possession football. The Germans have developed an extremely efficient and successful production line, giving them a squad which seems to be infinitely strong in every area of the pitch. Whilst our hosts Brazil dazzle their opponents with their skill and flair and also have the unrivalled ability to perform the spectacular. My point here is that England’s strength is certainly not an attacking right back that occasionally cuts onto his weaker foot and scores, and it definitely isn’t defending, so why play like that and what is our strength?
Pace. England have pace, lots and lots of pace and yet we’ve never thought to use it until now. The match against Poland showed how effective the pace of Townsend was at not only getting England out of their own half, but more importantly how effective it was in terms getting deep into the opposition’s. If we were to tap into the speed gold mine then I believe a counter-attacking approach would see us reap the rewards to the fullest extent. With blistering pace all over the pitch and central midfielders with the ability to consistently find these speed merchants, I would see even the most accomplished national sides finding it a difficult proposition to deal with.
But where does Wayne Rooney fit in? Considering that Rooney is possibly our best player, it may seem contradictory to my philosophy of playing to your strengths that Rooney has not yet featured. However despite the fact he may be considered an anomaly in this new paradigm, as he is not renowned for beating players, this does not necessarily mean we are subordinating his talents. If anything, this new focus on pace casts Rooney in the brightest light we have seen whilst wearing an England shirt, as I feel that his overall ability and greatest attributes were finally on show against Poland.
He displayed his excellent ability to link up with teammates and provides the necessary glue to bind together the quick and direct players around him, without midfield players having to join attack which indirectly provides more stability as the likes of Gerrard, Lampard and Carrick will not have the burden of needing to dictate the attacking phase of play, as well as defending, a role in which they all should flourish as they are each providing similar services to their respective club teams due to their ever increasing age. Therefore, if Rooney excels in this system, and in fact the whole team benefits; the only thing left to do is to find a right back and a left winger.
Leighton Baines is the pinnacle of modern day full backs, combining an ability to defend with an unrelenting engine, enabling him to provide width for the whole 90 minutes, whilst his pin point delivery from open play and set pieces completes the utopian model all full backs should aspire to. As I’ve already mentioned, Townsend was excellent on the right, however his ability to cut inside was hindered by Smalling’s lack of prowess as a full back. If we can find someone capable of overlapping Townsend then we will see even better performances from the young winger.
The option even remains when Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and even Lennon return, to deploy Townsend on the left in which he can still drive the opposition back whilst mirroring this threat on the opposite flank in the form of one of the three aforementioned players. Townsend showed he can use his right foot against Poland and thus the option for him to cut in still remains, especially due to Baines’ complete understanding of his role. Whilst with either Walcott or Chamberlain on the right, as well as Sturridge’s relative pace, would mean there are more players on the pitch that strike fear into the opposition defence. Also, Townsend went quiet in the second half as Poland became aware (eventually) of the space he received and his job in the team. If we can replicate the danger posed by Townsend on the opposite side of the pitch, the opposition will find it twice as difficult to extinguish potentially lightning quick counter attacks, needing to be weary of both flanks, rather than just one. This is why, although Welbeck isn’t a bad player, I feel he is the most dispensable part of the attacking unit. Yes, he is relatively fast, however his approach to the game does not make use of this and whilst he would provide a good option to replace or partner Sturridge, should circumstances require it, I feel by replacing him with a player of Townsend’s ilk, England would be a far more formidable opponent, at least in terms of teams actually having to be fearful of us in some respect.
All in all, to avoid making this article a tedious and long read, I would like to sum up my thoughts. The recent performances of England should definitely be taken with a pinch of salt, however if we continue down the path set out by the last two qualifiers (that being using our rapid wingers as our primary mean of attack) and manage to find the necessary players to complete the system then we have every right to feel better about our national situation. There were very promising signs and by the time Brazil 2014 comes around we could be, by sticking to this new approach, the tournament’s surprise package.