“We’re not positive enough and we’re not creative enough,” float the ghostly words of Sir Trevor Brooking over the opening chords of Three Lions.
It’s taken 22 years since the song’s release, but England finally have a team that can say “Oh, but we are.”
With a tactical system that puts four attacking players plus two very forward-minded wing-backs on the pitch at once, and set-plays that would put some NFL offensive co-ordinators to shame, it’s no wonder Gareth Southgate’s side have fans singing “It’s coming home.”
Being confident and excited about the national men’s team might be an unfamiliar feeling to many in England, so it is as a public service that Football Whispers is here to highlight one of the very few negatives in the set-up that the Three Lions should be wary of.
There were times in the first half – before Panama lost the energy even to wrestle English players to the floor – when spaces opened up just in front of England’s back-line, allowing the CONCACAF opponents to create some opportunities.
With Jesse Lingard and Ruben-Loftus Cheek joining the attack and England’s full-backs pushing high up the pitch, or else dropping deep and in line with the centre-backs, this offered two ways that space could open around Jordan Henderson.
The gaps could come behind the full-back – in the example above, Kieran Trippier – or in front of the centre-backs, who were also occasionally slow in stepping up onto the back of strikers who dropped to receive the ball.
It’s a similar problem to one that Germany have faced in the tournament, space in behind their advanced full-backs an empty central midfield being exploited, but England differ from the Germans in two key areas.
The first is that the advantage of three centre-backs means an extra man to deal with the pressure and an ability to cover more space. Two centre-backs are fairly easy to drag around out of position; three much less so.
The other is that whereas Germany’s centre-backs are more prone to diving into tackles – whether by instruction or by make-up – England’s back off to absorb pressure and wait for reinforcements.
It means that Panama, or other opponents, are able to break up the pitch more quickly than they might if they were challenged by a defender stepping out and lunging in, but also means that a break is less likely to result in a goal.
There are a couple of ways that this space could be closed.
The first is a full-back tucking inside, a la Manchester City, but this assumes that they’re not thirty yards up the pitch.
The second involves one of the three centre-backs stepping up to move alongside the deeper-lying central midfielder, although this would lessen England’s ability to absorb the pressure – if one pass beats that midfield line, the opponent are up against two centre-backs, instead of three.
These are all things that the England set-up will no doubt have considered, and every change has pros and cons attached to it.
Another of the downsides of backing off to absorb pressure, though, is that it can make defenders feel under pressure and in a state of panic with the opponent rushing towards them close to their own goal.
Gareth Southgate also said post-match that he didn’t particularly like the performance and thought it was a bit nervy, particularly at the start of the game, and this arguably showed in the amount of chances England have created from open play.
England being set-piece kings is playing fantastically well to a national stereotype, but it might be a little uncomfortable for Southgate that just ten of England’s 29 shots have come from open play across their first two matches.
None of this is to say that England are a bad side, or are in trouble, or are lucky to have racked up an 8-2 aggregate across their opening games, but it’s a perspective-keeper.
After all, everyone seems to know the score, they’ve seen it all before…