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Style key to England’s clever World Cup warm-up

 • by Mark Thompson
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The friendlies before a World Cup are an important time in each nation’s preparation for the tournament.

It’s an opportunity to finalise the first-team line-up or experiment with options, either tactical or personnel. They can also be used as a run-through, a dress rehearsal and a chance to play similar teams to the ones a nation will soon battle against in their groups.

Often, as Michael Cox recently pointed out, this is done by sticking a pin on a map in the middle of a geographically nearby country.

Is this what England did, or did they approach their pre-tournament tests more scientifically?

Picking the perfect sparring partner

On the surface, it looks as though England went down the geographical route. They faced Costa Rica, neighbours of Panama, and while Tunisia might even be closer to England than Nigeria, it is still in Africa.

It looks about as geographically-focused as the pre-tournament friendlies have gotten. Only Japan – playing Poland’s fellow central European country Switzerland and Senegal’s fellow West African side Ghana – look like they based their plans on a map more.

But dig a little deeper and England seem to have done something clever.

While Costa Rica and Panama are neighbours, they’re also relatively stylistically similar.

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The overlap isn’t perfect, but neither side is hugely interested in keeping the ball and both defend in similar ways.

As well as the aspects of that captured in the persona radar, they both do their defending further back on the pitch. During qualifying, Panama made just 4.5 per cent of their possession regains in the attacking third while for Costa Rica the figure was 5.6 – both Tunisia and Belgium made over eight per cent of regains in this area.

The differences matter

Costa Rica did defend a little deeper though. This can be gleaned from the increased characterisation of dogged defending in their persona, as well as making a higher share of their possession regains in their defensive third.

However, it makes more sense for England to play a team whose defensive differences from their group opponents are more conservative, as Panama are likely to play more conservatively when they get to the World Cup.

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England have played enough friendlies against major nations since qualifying finished that their preparation for Belgium is covered.

The Red Devils profile similarly to the big sides that Gareth Southgate’s men have already faced, though with a bit more of an emphasis on crossing than the norm.

This leaves Nigeria as the Tunisia substitute and, in a lot of ways, they profile incredibly differently.

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There is a similarity in playing a long ball game, but other than that the two look like very different sides. However, there is one thread that makes the two look more similar.

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Tunisia had the most intense press of any of the 31 sides who went through qualifying, according to one metric. Part of this will have been aided by the lesser quality of their group, allowing them to win the ball more easily without the fear of a press being broken, but Nabil Maâloul’s side still looked well-drilled.

Impressively, they kept up these defensive tendencies, albeit adapted slightly, in their own pre-tournament friendlies against Portugal and Spain.

So why Nigeria? The Super Eagles also posted relatively intense pressing numbers during qualifying – less so than Tunisia, but still towards the top of the list. They may not have performed superbly against England in the first half, but after a bit of a re-jig during half-time they looked a tough opposition.

It means that England have now faced three different types of defences – the elite teams; the mid-tier side capable of pressing; and the deep-bloc minnow.

All being well, that should mean they’ll be well-prepared when the tournament kicks off.

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