Many words have been written in many places concerning the England performance against Algeria on Friday. So many were written in the heat of the moment, without reflection and analysis. The mainstream media have already made manager Fabio Capello the scapegoat (and this was always likely to be the case, but that’s another column for another day), with the convention wisdom being that not all of the players were playing in their favoured position. This simply was not true. Capello did not line all the players up in their best positions, but 10 of them were. The eleventh player (deputising captain Steven Gerrard) took it upon himself to play in his preferred position, rather than the one his manager had earmarked for him. Gerrard has never made a secret over where he prefers to play – he devoted an entire chapter of his autobiography on his unhappiness of playing at right midfield for a season at Liverpool, despite it being one of the most productive of his career.
England lined up in a standard 4-4-2 formation. Algeria lined up as a 5-4-1, with three centre-backs (Madjid Bougherra, Rafik Helliche and Antar Yahia), two defensive wingbacks (Nadir Belhadj and Foued Kadir), a packed midfield, and an attacking midfielder upfront (Karim Matmour). Such a formation was intended to frustrate and defend against a supposedly major nation. Every England midfielder and forward marked, covered, with Helliche sweeping up anything that gets missed.
But how did this affect the players? Well, the FIFA site has a “heat map” for each player in each team. The more time spent in an area of the pitch, the redder that area of the pitch looks. It’s very scientific, and, like many of the Sports Science improvements of the last second or so, is an important tool of many managers in the modern game
Glen Johnson’s heatmap is what you would expect of a fullback.
Mainly on the right hand side, but covering the defence, as well as supporting his fullback. Aaron Lennon’s heatmap is also as expected:
Most of the work down the right hand side, a small amount of time helping out his fullback, and a little bit of time spent on the opposite flank. However, on the opposite side to Lennon, is where Steven Gerrard was allegedly playing:
A little time spent helping the left centre half (John Terry), and some time spent on the left, but in the main, Gerrard played as a marauding central midfielder (further reviews of the game show that he started of on the left, and drifted inside after 20-25 minutes and never really returned). The immediate thought is that maybe Gerrard and Gareth Barry have been switched, with Barry moving to the left. But, a look at Barry’s heatmap:
shows that that is not the case. Gerrard going into business for himself completely unbalances the side. First of all, it increases the amount of work that Cole has to do down the left hand side. He has to do all of the left sided attacking, as well as the left sided defending, as his heatmap shows:
Cole makes an enourmous amount of running (11.4km, to be almost precise). In fact, he covers more ground than anyone else on the pitch, which is rare for a fullback – studies show that strikers and midfielders usually cover the most ground. As well as increasing Cole’s work, it also pulls Terry out of position, so that he’s almost playing at left back, as his heatmap shows:
So, Gerrard’s solo act (reminiscent of David Beckham’s against Greece without the good, and bad freekicks) weakens the defence, because it takes two men to cover the gaps. It doesn’t just weaken the defence – it weakens the attacking options to. After all, when your team is lined up like this for the last fifteen minutes of the first half:
The opposition reorganise for the second half, and come out looking like this:
Nadir Belhadj (3), who starts as a defensive wingback, is now playing an orthodox left midfield role to cover any runs Glen Johnson might make, as Bougherra (2) and Halliche (5) each take care of a forward, and Yahia (4) is slightly further forward, backing off, as though he’s playing fullback (and therefore marking Lennon), than an orthodox left sided centre half in a three man defence. Ashley Cole is left to his own devices, as Algeria crowd the midfield with five players. This means that England can’t get the ball out of midfield anywhere near as often as they would like, and when they do, the ball is either poor, or the attacking outlets of Heskey, Lennon and Rooney are effectively marked. The onus is on England. This frustrates Rooney to the point where he also starts dropping back, looking for something:
And you have four in centre midfield for England (Lampard, Barry, Gerrard, Rooney), and the five that Algeria are using in order to crowd it. It’s not conducive to breaking down an organised defence. It’s playing into their hands. And by taking himself out of left midfield, and into the centre, Gerrard has weakened Ashley Cole, John Terry, Gareth Barry (who now has to cover two attacking central midfielders – rather than two defensive midfielders covering one attacker, as happens at Gerrard and Lampard’s clubs), Frank Lampard (who is competing for the attacking midfield role, with someone that he has proved he is unable to form a partnership after 34 games together in the centre for England), Aaron Lennon, Emile Heskey and Wayne Rooney. At the end of a season when Gerrard has been badly off form, and deciding to play his own natural game, he’s only allowed David James, Jamie Carragher and Glen Johnson, out of his ten team-mates, to play theirs.
It could be argued that this was a Capello decision, rather than a Gerrard one – but Capello is known for his tactical knowledge, and in a rare moment, where the vuvuzelas were not the loudest noise at the tournament, Capello was clearly heard relaying instructions to the team around the fortieth minute mark. And if Capello had made such a move, after a lacklustre 30 minutes, there is no way Capello would stick with it, when the performance deteriorated as a result. That’s not to make say that Capello did not make mistakes – naming Steven Gerrard as vice-captain, when he isn’t guaranteed the same role in the team from game to game made a rod for Capello’s back, the moment that Rio Ferdinand was ruled out of the tournament. Dropping him is difficult, tactically substituting him, especially should England fail to win the match as a result would be suicide with sections of the fans, as it was on the rare occasions that Rafael Benitez did it. And considering that there may be a time when either Gerrard or Lampard need to make way, considering the form of the past season, that would have to be Gerrard – and certainly if one makes way for the other in a match, you’d rather have Gerrard than Lampard have a speculative last minute shot from outside the box. As an aside, in my opinion, telling the team who is playing with two hours to go is not an error. The players say that they need to be prepared to play (especially the goalkeepers), however at the World Cup, everyone who does not start is a substitute (unless they are suspended, or you declare them injured or absent – or in the North Korean’s case against Brazil fail to realise that you’re allowed more than the seven used in the qualifiers). In that respect, all the players need to be professional, and prepare regardless. Michael Owen came off in the fourth minute against Sweden at the last World Cup. Did Peter Crouch tell Sven Goran Eriksson that he couldn’t play because he was unprepared? Of course not. Admittedly, this has been a complaint of the press, rather than the players (who have been kept away from the press, apart from at conferences), whose real reason is that they prefer to write about the team that will play, rather than speculate on who they think the line up will be. Previous complaints were made by the red tops when Graham Taylor decided that he did not want to give his opponents more chance to prepare, so broke the previous tradition of naming the team and substitutes the day before for the benefit of the press. And we all remember how even handed Taylor was treated by the press.
The biggest mistake of Capello’s, however, wasn’t the an assumption that Algeria would start defensively, but that England would be best served trying to open the Algerian defence using possession, when the evidence before the tournament suggested that they were comfortable on the ground, but susceptible in the air – something Slovenia had tried to capitalise upon the occasions when they’d bothered to attack in the opening game. England only managed 12 crosses in the game, and couldn’t connect with a teammate with any of them. Valter Birsa’s delivery was much more effective against the United States, and if Steven Gerrard plays out wide today and abandons his fullback like he did last week, the result could be even weaker. Especially when you consider that the line up announced could result in s 4-4-2 (GK James; DF Johnson, Upson, Terry, A Cole; MF Gerrard, Lampard, Barry, Milner; FW: Rooney, Defoe) with Milner on the left, rather than the right. Capello could conceivably go 4-3-1-2 with Gerrard just behind the forwards, but such a formation would nullify Lampard’s attacking threat, and relies on Lampard, or a left-footed player protecting Glen Johnson – the weaker of the two England fullbacks.
All Heatmap and Tactical View images are copyright of FIFA, and can be viewed by looking at the “Matchcast” of each individual game.