It has been a difficult couple of months for Gareth Southgate and England. A tepid display in the Czech Republic saw England lose their first qualifying match for ten years. Following this display, Southgate was forced to deal with two high profile off-field issues. First, his side’s comfortable 6-0 win in Bulgaria was marred by appalling displays of racism which twice saw the game halted. Southgate then had to deal with the fallout of the high profile altercation between Raheem Sterling and Joe Gomez which saw the former dropped from the side and the latter booed as he made his way onto the field as a second-half substitute.
As it panned out England did not miss Sterling. Southgate’s tactics quickly ensured any lingering doubts regarding their qualification, however minor, were quickly swept away as they demolished a poor Montenegro side. It was party time inside Wembley for England’s 1000th international match. The emphatic nature of the win ensured that the pack of knives being readied by the on-looking media, keen to pounce on any signs of weakness, had to be put back in their drawers for the time being.
The game was over as a contest after just 37 minutes with England racing into a 5-0 lead. For that reason, this tactical analysis will primarily focus on that opening 30 minute period in which England scored five goals, secured their passage to Euro 2020 and became the leading goal scorers across all European qualification groups.
England lined up in a 4-3-3 formation which has become Southgate’s go-to formation for much of this qualifying campaign. Regular no.1 Jordan Pickford started in goal behind a much-changed back four. Trent Alexander-Arnold started at right back, while Harry Maguire partnered the returning John Stones at centre-back. Leicester City’s Ben Chilwell started on the left of defence. There was also a new midfield trio on display as Tottenham’s Harry Winks operated as the deep-lying pivot with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to his right and Mason Mount to his left operating as the sides most advanced midfielder. Up front England captain Harry Kane operated as the sides focal point and number 9 with Borussia Dortmund’s young starlet Jadon Sancho on the right-wing and Marcus Rashford on the left.
Montenegro lined up in a 4-3-2-1 shape. Levski Sofia’s experienced stopper Milan Mijatovic started in goal. Risto Tadunovic started at left-back, while Marko Vesovic started on the right of defence. Marko Simic played alongside Aleksandar Sofranac at the heart of defence. Dusan Lagator anchored the midfield with Deni Hocko at right centre midfield and Levante’s Nicola Vukcevic at left centre midfield. In front of the midfield trio were Vladamir Jovocic and Dead Haksabanovic who operated as dual 10s behind lone striker Fatos Beqiraj.
England Attack down the Flanks
Out of possession, Montenegro had a clear tactic to sit in a low block, depending on the situation this could be a 4-3-2-1 (most frequent), 4-5-1, 4-1-4-1, 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1 shape. We can see examples of this below.
Above with England in possession in a central area we see Montenegro in a narrow 4-3-2-1 formation. They are congesting the central areas of the pitch, attempting to maintain compact horizontal and vertical distances, thus preventing any passes through the lines.
At other times especially when the ball was played left, the attacking midfielders would track across into the wide areas, with the three central midfielders covering the central areas and the opposite flank.
In truth, there was probably too much variation in the Montenegro defensive shape. At times they left far too many gaps for England to exploit. They also failed to get regular pressure on the ball. When they did press it was always as an individual not a team, and that individual rarely got tight enough to affect the ball. We can see this below, with England in an advanced position Montenegro have dropped into a 4-5-1. However, they still do not get tight to the ball, giving Maguire a simple pass into the exposed space.
The approach did however force England to attack the wide areas in order to stretch the Montenegrin defensive shape and pull players out of position. Indeed England found great joy in attacking down the wide areas. They were able to quickly transfer the ball from wing to wing with through crisp, accurate passes which created spaces across Montenegro’s deep block which England could exploit.
Their success came through either being able to move the ball quicker than Montenegro were able make their covering runs. Or by playing accurate balls in behind the Montenegro defence to unleash the pace of both Sancho and Rashford to run onto in behind.
We can see this ploy in practice in the above clip. Chilwell has overlapped Rashford to create an attacking triangle with Mount on the left of Montengro’s defensive third. This was not successful in creating a chance to probe that side and England recognise Montenegro’s defensive strength around the ball so switch the ball out to the right. From the opposite side Winks is able to thread a split through ball which releases Sancho in behind.
England had a clear plan to exploit Montenegro’s narrow midfield, attack out wide and get crosses into the box. In all they attempted 27 crosses.
This was especially true of the left flank, which provided the route to goal for each of the three opening goals. Key to England’s success was their ability to get numbers in support of the ball in the final third out wide. Rashfords’ pace and direct running, Chilwell’s intelligent positioning and determination to get forward combined with Mount’s tendency to drift wide allowed England to combine to great effect down the the left hand side. In all, 78% of their attacks were focused down the wings, with the left wing being their greatest source of joy.
England out of possession
Montenegro’s willingness to attack, and attempts to work the ball across the pitch (they played 87% of their passes short), gave us the opportunity to see England’s plan out of possession. Where possible England like to press high and win the ball back quickly, with the front three forming a three-man pressing unit. We can see an example of England attempting to win the ball back quickly in transition below.
Following a Harry Winks’ clearance England quickly get four players around the ball. The fact the ball is near the touch line means that the player in possession only has a 180-degree range of passing, as opposed to a 360-degree range from central areas. England use this as a cue to press, giving the player in possession no forwards or sideways pass and forcing him to play towards his own goal.
As Montenegro continue to play backwards Sancho continues to press high to get pressure on the ball, also note how his angle of approach helps to block the switch of play. Sancho is backed up by Rashford, Kane and Mount who cover the nearest passing options. This gives the player in possession just three options. He can turn back and play to the keeper. Attempt a switch to the player circled red, although this is risky given Sancho’s approach and the fact that Oxlade-Chamberlain is in position to quickly press. Or play long, thus giving England a good chance of regaining possession in their own third. In the end he is forced into the latter option
The speed, coordination and quality of England’s team press made in incredibly difficult for Montenegro to turn transitions and ball recoveries into secure possession. In the above clip Montenegro had regained loose possession in England’s half, but were eventually forced into playing a long ball from deep inside their half.
When Montenegro did achieve comfortable possession, England were able to switch from a 4-3-3 to a 4-5-1 formation. We can see this in operation below, Rashford and Sancho retreat to form a five man midfield unit. They congest the central areas and maintain good vertical distances to the back four limiting space between the lines. Having five men in the unit allows them excellent horizontal coverage of the pitch restricting Montengro’s potential to exploit the wide areas (notice how Sancho who’s circled is already primed to track wide before the pass has been made).
Admittedly Montenegro lacked quality going forwards but this should not diminish England’s excellent defensive organisation, restricting Montenegro to just three shots from open play (they were twice caught on the counter). Given the well documented issues England’s centre backs have had at times against elite opposition, England’s ability to defend as a unit, win the ball back high up the pitch and congest midfield areas will have a huge impact on their success in major competitions moving forwards.
Montenegro Make Rod for their own Backs
Perhaps inspired by Kosovo’s success in exposing England’s defensive weaknesses Montenegro showed more attacking ambition than many sides England have come up against in recent qualifying campaign. While this ambition helped make this game a far more entertaining spectacle than most qualifying matches involving England, it was perhaps ill-advised given the disparity in ability on display. Although they twice came close too scoring only to be denied by two fine Pickford saves, their attacking endeavour resulted in creating more problems for themselves than it did England’s defence.
Below we see an example of when their adventurous, or at least not totally negative, nature counted against them. While in possession they have pushed their fullbacks high and wide, committing five players forward and leaving just two players goal side of the ball.
Unfortunately, they lacked the quality in possession to maintain control of the ball. As a result, they are easily robbed of possession and exposed to England’s pace on the counter, with Sancho ending up through 1v1 with the keeper.
Harry Kane is a player who has been subject to much debate of late. While his position as a leader and regular starter in this England side has never been in major doubt, pundits and analysts alike have suggested his performances have declined somewhat since the end of the 2018 season.
One criticism levelled at Kane has been that his impressive goal scoring record for England has been heavily inflated from penalties since the start of the 2018 World Cup, masking an all-round decline in his performances. This argument is not without merit. Between the start of the World Cup and Thursday’s game Harry Kane had scored 15 goals in 18 appearances. This gave him a rate of 0.83 goals per game, which is unquestionably outstanding.
However, seven of these goals came from the spot. There is no doubting that such chances still need to be put away, and Kane has done this with great efficiency scoring seven of his eight attempted penalties in this period. It was however, of slight concern that England’s main goal scorer had scored eight non-penalty goals in his last 18 starts (0.44 goals per game), given the standard of opposition in many of those games. Moreover, only one of those goals (vs Croatia) came against a side ranked in the top 50 of Fifa’s World Rankings.
While his stellar performance and goals in this game did not address the latter concern it did at least add to his non-penalty tally. Kane wrapped up a first half hattrick with the goals spaced just 19 minutes apart. He demonstrated that he remains a huge danger in the penalty area, getting on the end of two Ben Chilwell set pieces and a Jadon Sancho cross.
Kane was less involved in England’s build up play, he averaged a pass every 8.1 minutes as opposed to one every six minutes in his last outing against Bulgaria. Instead of Kane the creator we have seen of late this was Kane the ruthless goalscorer. 45% of his touches came within 20 yards of the opposition goal, as opposed to 20% against Bulgaria. While he took a shot every 11.4 minutes, as opposed to every 22.5 minutes against Bulgaria. Thus, on Thursday we saw Kane operating as a more orthodox number 9, as opposed to the 9/10 hybrid role he has largely performed since the world cup.
Fullbacks Shine in Attack
In defeat away to the Czech Republic Gareth Southgate came in for much criticism for his decision to start the experienced pairing of Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier in the full back roles, ahead of the inform combo of Ben Chilwell and Trent Alexander-Arnold.
The role England’s fullbacks, especially Chilwell, played in the devastating first half display went a long way to supporting the argument that the same pairing should have started in Prague. Chilwell caught the eye early, delivering an astonishing three assists in a breath taking 13 minute spell of attacking fullback play.
We have already touched upon Chilwell’s overlapping and wing play above but he also demonstrated other facets of his game. In particular his tactical intelligence to recognise when to go down the line and when to tuck inside. We saw this decision making both in his support play in knowing when to step inside if Mount had drifted wide and when in possession in knowing when to drive inside with the ball. The latter was best evidenced in the build up to England’s first goal.
Above Mount makes an intelligent run out to the left, drawing his marker with him. As England have just quickly shifted the ball from right to left, three of Montenegro’s five man midfield are still out on the opposite flank. Mount’s run thus creates a space in the central area for Chilwell to dribble into.
Chilwell carries the ball into the newly vacated space, before delivering a delightful ball behind the Montenegro defence for Oxlade-Chamberlain to run onto and score. This was only part of a superb attacking display from Chilwell, who, on top of his three assists, laid on on further two shooting opportunities for teammates, completed four successful dribbles and attempted ten crosses.
We can also not overlook the quality of Chilwells’s delivery from set pieces. Set plays have long been a key source of goals for England and Chilwell demonstrated his expert delivery from both a wide free kick for England’s second goal and corner for England’s third.
On the opposite flank Alexander-Arnold was a little quieter, also attempting ten crosses but only creating one chance for a teammate. He still surely did enough to now be considered England’s first choice right back.
While the pair demonstrated their immense talents going forwards, their defending in 1v1 situations will have been of some concern to Southgate. Between them they completed six tackles (Chilwell four, Alexander-Arnold two), but were dribble past eight times (Chilwell 3, Alexander-Arnold 5). Against stronger opposition England cannot allow their fullbacks to be beaten with such frequency else they will be punished, with Alexander-Arnold’s tackle success rate of just 29% particularly alarming.
Midfield Maestro’s Stake their Claim
More time has been spent discussing who should occupy the three positions in heart England’s midfield than perhaps any other position. In that last round of fixtures Declan Rice, Jordan Henderson and Ross Barkley were all given the opportunity to further their cause. Only Barkley, who missed this game through injury, did anything to enhance his reputation with two goals against Bulgaria and a decent cameo against the Czech Republic.
For this match Tottenham’s pass master Harry Winks had the opportunity to press ahead of Rice in the battle to start as England’s deepest midfielder, while one of this season’s breakout Premier League stars Mason Mount had the opportunity to show what he could do on the left of England’s midfield and Liverpool’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain returned to the side for his first start since March 2018.
All three had impressive moments with Mount demonstrating clever movement to drag opponents out of position (see clip for first goal) and create space for others. Operating as a number 6 Harry winks demonstrated his smooth technical ability and tidy passing, completing an impressive 85 passes at a 95% success rate (although it must be stated he was rarely pressed given Montenegro’s low block). Perhaps most pleasing however was the fact that Winks demonstrated both his combative side and greater mobility compared to Rice. This is reflected in him winning five of his eight individual duels, while also completing three successful tackles.
It was however Oxlade-Chamberlain who most caught the eye. His well timed run to get on the end of Chilwell’s clever pass in the build up to the first goal was capped by a finish of supreme quality and composure. His 88% pass success rate is impressive in itself, but becomes even more so in the context of the progressive nature of his passing, laying on three key passes and creating two ‘big chances’ for teammates. Furthermore, he achieved these figures despite coming off after just 56 minutes. His performance in this match has surely put him in the frame for a starting berth at next summer’s European Championship.
In this analysis we have looked at how England brushed Montenegro aside with a fine attacking display which allowed Southgate and his side to end a challenging week off the field with a high on it. A number of players did their claims for regular selection no harm, especially at fullback and in midfield where no one currently looks a guaranteed starter.
While the cliché that ‘you can only beat the team in front of you’ rings true in this case, the lack of quality and defensive generosity on show from Montenegro makes drawing any firm conclusions from this game impossible. England have secured their place at Euro 2020 and scored a whopping 33 goals (and counting) in the process. However, their fortune in drawing a comfortable qualifying group means that the real hard work starts now as far greater tests than Thursday lie in wait.
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