They did the job. That’s the important thing. The rousing welcome from Kosovo would have a good change from the torrid atmosphere a few weeks ago in Bulgaria. The English had been welcomed wonderfully, but the same question was still relevant; did we ever look comfortable? This tactical analysis will focus on Gareth Southgate’s England versus Bernard Challandes’ Kosovo and a tale of two very different halves. One passive and turgid, one intent, active and clinical.
England had a changed team following the thrashing of Montenegro. It was fantastic to see the likes of Nick Pope, Tyrone Mings and Callum Hudson-Odoi starting for England in the UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifiers. It was good to be able to treat this game as a friendly; not only through the nature of the welcome but also because they could. We didn’t need a result, unlike campaigns of yesteryear, and that gave the game a much more relaxing feel.
Hudson-Odoi, later followed by Marcus Rashford, were more inside forwards than wingers and between them did not cross the ball once. Raheem Sterling on the other hand, although he drifted in-field at times, was more used as a winger.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, as I will refer to later was more attacking than Harry Winks and this helped to almost create a 4-2-3-1 in attack as Winks sat deeper to help retain possession.
Kosovo was set up slightly more defensively than usual having set out in a 4-2-3-1 for most of the campaign. They played in a 4-1-4-1 which match that of England’s.
England In Possession
In the first half, England averaged 54% of the ball compared to the latter half where they had 58%. As you will see later on in this tactical analysis, this correlated with England’s pressing intensity.
It tells you a lot that during the whole game the highest passing combination was between Harry Maguire and Mings. What’s even more telling is that the top four passing combinations were between a player and Mings. England tried to be patient and bring Kosovo onto them, but the Kosovans were structured and regimented and didn’t give England the space to attack, certainly in the first half.
England’s tactics improved in the second half as the low block tactic was replaced by a mid-to-high block. It meant they retained more of the ball and the chances and creativity improved.
In possession, as I alluded to earlier, Oxlade-Chamberlain played a lot higher than Winks to utilise the space behind the Kosovan midfield, but ultimately, certainly in the first half, he played too high and couldn’t be found as often as England would have liked.
In the image above, Winks is sitting as deep as Declan Rice, which was too defensive against the low block of Kosovo. If Winks had played closer to where the referee was situated when England was building up from the back, behind the initial press, England could have had more joy going forward.
Transitioning from defence is one area where England can improve. They have such great speed on in the team that at times, they need to utilize it far more. To get to this position, Sterling had broken from the box (without the ball) and got to a point, when he did receive the ball, where he couldn’t transition anymore. As you can see, Harry Kane and Hudson-Odoi ran straight and not into a position to help Sterling. If Kane had shifted his ran to the inside on the Kosovan number 23, rather than the outside, England could have created a much more fluid counter. Instead, Sterling played the ball backwards and England went into the possession stage.
England Out of Possession
England was chalk and cheese in this game. The first half, as discussed, they were much deeper and at times created a 4-5-1 in defence. England’s pressing did not start until Kosovo were into the final third and I don’t think Gareth Southgate was happy about this. The long-range chances came about, in the first half, due to England’s lack of intensity. In the first minute, the right-back of Kosovo cut inside unchallenged and let off a warning shot. England didn’t adapt to this and several more shots from long-range took place.
In the second half, the defensive shape changed and England went more onto the front foot and pressed much closer to Kosovo’s defensive third. England pressed much higher and did not give Kosovo the same time on the ball.
The graph below shows how after the break, England let Kosovo have less of the ball in their defensive third and this correlates to the increased possession numbers shown in the previous sections.
Passes Allowed per Defensive Action (PPDA) is the number of passes made by the attacking team (England) divided by the defensive actions of the defending team (Kosovo). Defensive actions include Tackles, Interceptions, Challenges and Fouls that take place in the defensive teams half plus 10% of the attacking teams half. Therefore the higher the PPDA number, the lower the press. E.g. 100 passes versus 14 defensive actions equal 7.14 passes per tackles, interceptions etc. or 50 passes versus 14 defensive actions equals 3.57 passes per defensive action.
England didn’t need to transition to defence. This sounds arrogant. From the image above, with a tight centre-back on their lone front man Kosovo couldn’t build up much of an attack. Declan Rice was positioned well for these Kosovan breakaways and ultimately this meant that England could win the ball back very quickly. In the first half, England played a much lower block and the image above soon turned into a 4-1-4-1 shape as they got men behind the ball.
Kosovo in Possession
Kosovo has an Expected Goals (xG) rate of 10.62 in this qualification campaign and scored 13 goals. We, therefore, can determine that they have overachieved in the attacking department. They scored 3 more goals than they were expected to.
Kosovo’s idea was to play the ball into Nuhiu and feed off him. Unfortunately, when the ball was played into him, England was very quick to press him from behind and block the passing lanes. Nuhiu, although being the main outlet for balls forward was not in the top ten of passing links throughout the game. This could be the fault of the striker, but what is more likely is that it was a combination of England nullifying this route of attack and the midfield not being quick enough to support the Sheffield Wednesday striker.
Beyond trying to find Nuhiu and the odd diagonal ball out to wide man Florent Hadergjonaj, Kosovo did not offer much going forward.
Kosovo out of Possession
England was passive in defence in the first half, but it doesn’t compare to how passive Kosovo was. When they did attempt to win the ball back, it was out on the wings in their low-block with Vojvoda the most successful tackler.
Towards the end of the game, after the quick-fire treble, Kosovo was nearly allowing 100 passes before making any challenge. Across the entire game, Kosovo played a very low block and had a PPDA of 28.88. Only Malta, Gibraltar, Liechtenstein and Estonia have average PPDA that are lower than Kosovo did in this game.
In this tactical analysis, we have looked at how England stuttered to find the right gear and when they did, they were clinical. The first half display would not have pleased Gareth Southgate and he will be hoping that the part-second string will learn than when the opposition is passive, England need to adapt more quickly. Did we ever look comfortable? The question posed in the introduction continues. If England had adapted more quickly this game would have been over far more quickly than it was. Or could we question Gareth? Why did England set up so passively in the first half?
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