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Spain's imperfect press masked England problems

 • by Mark Thompson
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The 2-1 defeat to Spain was a humbling moment for an England side still running slightly high on the fumes of a great World Cup.

However, the Three Lions created a number of chances from open-play against the 2010 world champions, something they struggled to do against most sides, even Tunisia, in Russia this summer.

So was the match at Wembley, despite the score, a sign of progress from Gareth Southgate’s side?

Spain’s hole-y press

Southgate’s team might be the most technically competent that England have ever had, and that’s great for playing out of an intense, high press.

Spain’s was certainly that, regularly pushing up to five or even six men forward onto England’s deepest players.

However, there were flaws in it. Take the following example, as John Stones plays a pass to Jesse Lingard, who’s loitering completely alone in the centre of the Wembley pitch.

Unfortunately for England on that occasion, Stones’ pass was just a little off. But look at the space Lingard would have had to turn into had the pass from the central defender been a little more accurate.

This wasn’t the only time that this happened, and there’s a relatively simple reason why it did.

While Spain’s forwards and midfielders were pushing high, their defensive line wasn’t coming forward  to match.

This could have been because they were worried about Marcus Rashford‘s pace punishing them in behind, or it could just have been a disjointed system given this was Luis Enrique’s first match in charge.

When Spain pushed higher, the space in midfield was even greater. Here it’s Dele Alli receiving the ball, but similarly hanging around the centre circle like Lingard was doing in the previous example.

And, as the camera pans to put Alli in the middle of the screen, we see just how much space there is between the two lines.

Why press?

You may think that if a side is going to leave this much space, what’s the point in pressing? However, despite these examples Spain’s high press paid off.

Below is a map  – courtesy of WhoScored – of where both teams lost the ball through bad touches or being tackled. England’s orange dots are mostly in their own half (13 of their 21). Most of Spain’s are also in England’s (11 of their 19).

The successful tackles tell a similar story: Spain have seven in England’s half.

These maps are for the whole game but Spain’s pressing was more intense in the first half than the second.

What changed?

The second half was a slightly different story to the first, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, natural fatigue as the match progressed meant Spain weren’t pressing as high up the pitch. Less of a high press means there’s less chance for the forward and defensive lines to have big gaps between them.

The other was that Spain didn’t have to chase England, as it was the Three Lions in need of an equaliser. The former was another dampener on the high-pressing, and the latter meant that England were more likely to try to force the issue.

This meant Alli and Lingard dropped deeper more often, as well as impatience from England’s defenders who tried to play long balls, rather than line-splitters.

On top of that, Spain’s centre-backs pushed up a little more. As an example, Nacho moves up towards Rashford, receiving the ball after a quick free-kick.

This is something that wouldn’t have happened in the first half, the back-line instead would have been far more likely to drop off.

Up until the very end of the game this blunted England significantly. Between half-time and the 80th minute, the hosts had just one shot and it came from outside the box.

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From then until the end of the match, they had five attempts from inside the area – not including Danny Welbeck’s disallowed goal or a great chance for Rashford that was narrowly offside. You can probably chalk this up to Spain tiring and the home team getting a new lease of life.

The Spain team that England faced was a unique one that enabled them to create from open-play. A lesser team wouldn’t press so high; a better performing team would be more compact, although against these sides England could give them something to think about by playing some long balls and forcing the opposing defence to adjust to that.

Sadly for England fans, this probably wasn’t a clear sign that England’s open-play chance creation was improving.

That said the way Southgate’s side were mostly able to withstand an aggressive press is a promising sign. England sides of the past would have panicked and given up chances, now, they’re able to play out of it.

Progress then but not radical amounts.

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