Early Doors

You need to be more like Jack

Wilshere and Lucas (630)There were several differences between the squad Roy Hodgson took to Ukraine, and the team that beat Brazil 2-1 at Wembley last night.

Most were injury or fitness related – Chris Smalling returning in place of Phil Jones, for example – while the likes of Aaron Lennon returned after harshly missing out on the Euros.

But the two stand-out selections are ones ED feels probably make the difference between the bus-parking side of last summer, and the one that took the game to Brazil with some success.

First is the absence of the now retired John Terry. ED will discount personal opinions on whether JT is a born leader or a poisonous manipulator. Unless you have spent time in the England dressing room or entered a Playstation ladder at a team hotel, you will never know.

However, with JT in the side there is a tendency for teams to defend deeper than preferred and to engage in some lionhearted backs-against-the-wall resistance. Which is fine if your tactical brief is to repel wave after wave of Spain attack, but not if you are looking to dictate a game and take the attacking fight to opponents who are a bit more prone at the back.

As fans of Manchester United and Arsenal have found out to their relative benefit and cost, to dictate the tempo of a game one needs to defend with a higher line; as Chelsea will tell you, this is not possible with Terry in the side. While an excellent stopper, he lacks the pace required to stand beyond his own final third.

The second key selection is pretty clear. As we are constantly told in an exercise of chronic self-flagellation, England (or rather English players) lack the technical capacity to indulge in the level of ball retention that Spain have made their stock in trade. The kind of ball retention which – even in the good old days of international football, when you could kick Pele out of a World Cup – usually makes the difference between tournament contenders and also-rans.

ED has always felt this to be an exaggeration – English football has churned out its fair share of ball-playing trequartista style players. However, generation after generation of international coaches both domestic and foreign have shunned the likes of Matt Le Tissier and Paul Merson for their more functional counterparts. Additionally, the over-abundance of money in the Premier League means even its relatively weaker sides would rather employ a marquee offshore signing in that position than allow a youngster to develop – drop down the leagues and you will see diminutive playmakers in abundance, even in the post Craig Hignett era.

So the welcome return of Jack Wilshere is, indeed, most welcome.

England still had less possession than Brazil last night – 44% in total – but it is a significant improvement on the 34% they managed against Italy in the quarter-finals of Euro 2012, a match they should have lost comfortably before the penalty shoot-out.

But it is a significant and tangible improvement. With the exception of Andrea Pirlo, Italy are not as technically gifted as Brazil, and do not press as high up the pitch as the South Americans.

Anyway, England correctly play a more direct game – not to would be folly given the respective traits of their attacking players – and we should thus gauge the team’s success as much on chances created and conceded, as opposed to pure possession, fashionable as that is. Against Italy, England barely created two opportunities on goal, while Italy carved out over 30; last night, both sides hovered around the 20 mark.

Wilshere’s impact was tangible on both fronts. He had around as many touches on the ball as all of England’s midfielders did against Italy and Germany combined, although ED will not include an errant hand in its analysis.

He also played six or seven key passes to attacking players, including the one that released Theo Walcott for England’s opener, helping boost the count of chances to boot.

But the energetic Arsenal midfielder also covered a lot of ground, closing down the opposition’s midfield and defence when he was without the ball.

This particular ‘skill’ is key, and one repeatedly overlooked by British media analysts when it wrings its hands over England’s continued failure.

Keeping possession is not simply about having good technique. Of course, you should have a solid first touch to kill the ball and create space for your next pass, which should be released quickly and accurately. Of course the accuracy of your subsequent pass is proportionally related to your technical proficiency at manipulating a football.

But, as Pep Guardiola famously said, you can be a beautiful team with the ball but you must be horrible without it.

Horrible in this context does not mean running around hacking away at opponents with wild abandon, but it does mean you should seek to dominate the space between yourself and the opponent from the moment the ball is lost until the moment it is yielded. Your opponent cannot keep the ball if he doesn’t have space.

England, against the top teams, do not fall short because of a basic lack of technique; they fall short because of a lack of mobility, or rather their inability to use it.

This has improved under Hodgson – remember, he had about a month to steer England through what could have been a disastrous Euros campaign, with a brief to avoid embarrassment , doing so by focusing on defence. Since then, England’s possession (against admittedly weaker sides) has exceeded 60%.

However, the off-the-ball pressing against Brazil still came up short, with notable exceptions in Wilshere, Wayne Rooney and Tom Cleverley.

Pressing is as much a team pastime as metronomic passing, so it makes sense that a team like Spain – many of whom play for the same two club outfits – should be superior than an England side whose talent is drawn from across the top division.

But there is a place to start, and that place is mobility in central positions. Gary Cahill is a fine ball player, which England historically lack in defence, but he is not mobile enough. Phil Jones, when fit, is a better option, while Chris Smalling showed that even with extended spells out, his superior mobility shone through.

Frank Lampard, who scored a fantastic winner, still has a role from the bench but physically cannot cover the yards or close down opponents quickly enough. The game has changed, and while Lampard five years ago fitted the template, he is no longer at his physical peak.

It’s not just about pace. Even Theo Walcott, the quickest man in English football, mostly runs in straight lines without the ball. He is improving, hence the recent upsurge in form, but he needs to be as focused on defensive forward duties as he is on chasing through-balls.

So there is work to do. ED is sure Hodgson, one of the game’s more travelled and coaching-focused managers, will eke the extra yards and inches out of his squad. It will be easier with younger players less set in their ways, but requires patience from all, patience ED is not sure the England press or fans possess in abundance.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "He was excellent tonight. I think he can (reach 100 caps). I hope we keep him Frank in Europe but it's not for me to discuss his future with his current club, that's between him and the club. I know he will have a lot of offers if Chelsea do decide they are prepared to let him go and I would rather hope that we will see him still, if not in England, then in Europe because that would make my task easier. If he does follow David (Beckham) and goes further afield it complicates things but it doesn't necessarily mean your career ends. But he of course he understands that the further afield you go the more problematic it does become for him and for the media to follow you and the national team manager" – Hodgson tells Lampard to avoid Los Angeles, as tempting as the cash and ‘lifestyle’ may be.

FOREIGN VIEW: “Obviously not as good as we wanted it today. Too many mistakes in too many areas. Tactically in some ways; individually; and we gave Honduras too many chances, and they took advantage of it. That was a lot of mistakes. We had problems closing down the passing lanes throughout the whole first half and the second half. Too many mistakes and too many players not playing up their potential” – USA boss Juergen Klinsmann after a shock 2-1 defeat to Honduras. US Soccer seem to be the only people who didn’t realise that Germany’s run to the 2006 World Cup semi-finals was more down to then-assistant Joachim Loew than his former boss.

COMING UP: A fairly quiet day in the post-international wilderness, but Jan Molby will be giving his sixpence on the week’s football antics.