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International Friendly: Norway 0:1 England
EURO 2012 - Coverage of Poland/Ukraine

FriendlyNorway0 : 1EnglandUllevaal Stadion
26 May 20124-1-4-1 4-4-1-1Oslo, Norway
 Young  9'Att: 21,496 

 GK1Robert Green  
 RB2Phil Jones   88'
 CB5Phil Jagielka
 CB6Joleon Lescott
 LB3Leighton Baines
 RM7James Milner  
 CM8Scott Parker  56'
 CM4Steven Gerrard  46'
 LM11Stewart Downing  85'
 SS10Ashley Young  72'
 CF9Andy Carroll
 GK13Joe Hart
 DF12Martin Kelly 88'
 MF14Jordan Henderson 73'
 MF15Gareth Barry 46'  73'
 MF16Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain 72'
 MF17Theo Walcott  56'
 MF19Adam Johnson 85'
 FW18Jermaine Defoe
 Roy Hodgson

In preparation for EURO 2012 next month, I'm going to be covering England matches for this blog.

And with that in mind, this past weekend England played in its first of two preparatory friendlies.  It was also Roy Hodgson's first match in charge of the Three Lions.  It was not a bad game, England played a solid defensive game, they created a few good chances, and most importantly—they got the win.  However, a number of issues were pretty clearly visible.

A number of the presumed starting lineup for EURO 2012 were missing from the game.  Glen Johnson is still nursing a potential injury and all the players from Chelsea were allowed extra time to celebrate their recent winning of the UEFA Champions League.  This allowed players who weren't necessarily sure starters for England's EURO games a chance to play (Joleon Lescott, Phil Jones, and Leighton Baines) and also gave the chance for players who are not in the official 23-man squad to play (Martin Kelly, Jordan Henderson, and Phil Jagielka—who has since been added to the squad).  Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard's fitness and condition were tested, and the results were overall positive—Parker played for 55 minutes and Gerrard the entire first half.

As I said, the team was very solid defensively.  Off-the-ball, the players knew where they were supposed to be in order to defend, in order to stay in position to eliminate chances being created against them.  At just about any point in the game (at least until the substitutions started and the positions of players became more fluid), off-the-ball you could freeze play and clearly see their 4-4-2 formation (I'm aware it says they played 4-4-1-1 up top, we'll get into that later).

Ashley Young's goal—the only one of the game—something quite impressive.  He managed to take on two defenders and just walk right around them.  He's creativity, pace, and dribbling were top-notch stuff.  At another point in the game, Stewart Downing fed in a beautiful cross for Andy Carroll to head into net, but the header just went wide.  Leighton Baines came close to besting Ashley Cole's goal tally (Cole has 93 caps but 0 goals) with a solid free kick effort.  Phil Jones, playing at right-back (where can't that kid play?), made a good run in on net and almost managed to get himself a goal.  Keeper Robert Green had some good moments and some bad, but either way it's unlikely to make any difference as Joe Hart is sure to start all of England's games at the tournament proper.

On the negative side of things, this formation is worrisome.  And with that, I begin what I know will be a long discussion on football formations.

I called it 4-4-1-1, but it could easily be called 4-4-2.  Ashley Young was not playing as an out-and-out striker, but was pushing forward and defending like one at times, and wasn't coming back deep enough to really be described as an playmaker or attacking midfielder.  This is why I described his position as second striker (SS) above, opposed to attack midfielder.  So, while this formation was 4-4-1-1, you can, for most intents and purposes, consider it 4-4-2, it was absolutely not 4-2-3-1 or any of the other single-striker formations that are popular today.

After the failure at the 2010 World Cup, Fabio Capello was lambasted in the press and by supporters for many things (the English were not pleased), but one of the big ones was his reliance on the "outdated" 4-4-2 formation.  I remember going on in great detail why his decision to stick to the formation was a mistake.  The truth of the matter is that most of the top teams today use some sort of single-striker formation (4-2-3-1, 4-5-1, 4-3-3 though that is probably better described as 4-1-2-2-1 so as not to make you think there are three strikers), and there are distinct advantages to doing so.

Single striker formations allow for more fluid play, shifting positions to complete a play is less likely to ruin the overall positioning of the team.  Granted, that has as much to do with a team's style of play as it does with the actual formation itself, but teams play 4-4-2 tend to be very rigid in their positioning.

For example, for 4-2-3-1, you have two wingers to provide both width and back-up for the striker.  A right winger can send a cross to the striker and left winger (who's cut in to play in a striker-role), or can cut in himself and play as an additional attack leaving the fullback to come forward and provide width if need be.  With 4-4-2, wide midfielders (generally they aren't considered wingers in 4-4-2) are not encouraged to cut in, they are simply there to provide the width, which reduces the number of attacks to get into the box and leaves the fullbacks without a role to play in the attack (not bad if you need to play defensively, but you'll score fewer goals).  This flaw was very clear in England's game, other than the one good cross by Stewart Downing, both wide midfielders (Downing and Milner) were virtually invisible during the game.  I'd like to think if Theo Walcott had more time, he'd be able to cut in and play as more of a winger (which is the role he fills at Arsenal).

Another crucial problem with 4-4-2 is a lack of central midfielders.  With traditional 4-4-2 you have two, one more attack minded and one more defense minded (though for many, many years, England has primarily played Gerrard and Frank Lampard—both attack minded players—in central midfield), and that's it.  With almost all the single-striker formations, you have three.  Sometimes it's two defensive and one offensive, two general midfielders and one playmaker way up the pitch, sometimes another combination; their roles may change but their numbers do not.  And simply put: the centre of midfield is where games will be won or lost.  If you can control the centre of the pitch, you control possession, you control the speed of the game, you control the flow of the game, and that's how you win matches.  Are Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker going to be outplay the triplet of Xavi, Xabi Alonso, and Cesc Fabregas?  No.  We can debate the comparative talents of the players if you'd like, but three good players are going to best two good players any day.  Norway played with three central midfielders and despite losing, they did win out on possession.  We scrapped out a win against a team who out numbered us in the centre, what are the chances we can do the same against world class opposition?

The Spanish, the Dutch, the Germans, and the French all use 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-2-2-1 (aka 4-3-3).  England either has to show it wants to be a modern, top team, or cling to the outdated system of the '90s.


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