Sam McGuire caught up with former Liverpool, Wigan and Watford academy coach Tim Lees, now in the US as Academy Director at St. Louis FC, to discuss England’s disappointing Euro 2016 campaign from a tactical standpoint.
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SM: When the England squad was announced what were your initial thoughts? Were there any players you felt should’ve been selected? What style did you feel would suit the squad of 23?
TL: “I felt it was the most exciting squad England had taken to a tournament since Euro 96. The squad pretty much picked itself and contrary to many other people, I would have definitely taken Daniel Sturridge and Jack Wilshere. Although he has hardly played any football this season, Wilshere is an outstanding talent and I would have taken him as an option to deploy in the right circumstances. He knows how to dictate the tempo of a game and breaks lines with and without the ball.
“You could argue all day over other players – such as having an alternative plan B like Carroll – but ultimately England’s downfall was nothing to do with profiles. Nothing whatsoever. The players are good enough. I’m my opinion, if you take Germany out of it, they have as much individual talent and range of different profiles as any other country. They had one of the youngest squads in the tournament which meant that they should, theoretically, have been fearless.
“I think Hodgson chose the right group. Regardless, let’s argue that they didn’t have the best players, it doesn’t matter. If numerous other elements are balanced then you don’t need the best players. History is littered with success stories at elite level football with “less talented players”. Chile beating Argentina this week and Leicester as two recent examples.”
Hodgson spoke about wanting to keep the width against Iceland but made it all very one dimensional by having inside forwards cutting in. Zero overloading on either flank. Who would you have started with those tactics in mind?
“When I saw the interview before the game I was intrigued. Not often to managers reveal their tactical plans pre match and Hodgson spoke very openly and clearly about the game plan. He talked about the importance of playing with width to counter and break the deep block of Iceland. His plan was to go around the outside and penetrate from there. It was a logical plan.
“Presumably, this strategy contributed to selecting Kane as he is excellent at finishing crosses both aerially and on the ground and he has very clever movement to get in between and across defenders. When I heard Hodgson talk about his plan, I was excited to see how this would play out. I presumed he had specific methods of overloading Iceland’s full-backs and I watched intensely in the first 15 minutes to see how they were going to do it. I study the tactical side of the game a lot as it really interests me. After 15 minutes, I was bewildered.
“Iceland were dropping to a medium block in a 4-4-2. England automatically had control and the initiative. They were getting to the halfway line with comfortable possession and had Iceland in a position where they should have rarely been able to get out of. I never criticise individual players but the problems for me were simple.
“If your plan is to go around the outside playing with width, the selection was wrong. Hodgson played Sterling and Sturridge – understandable choices for the plan – on the wrong sides. Anytime they received it to feet and were isolated 1v1, their automatic preference is to cut inside. Both those players are very effective 1v1 with skill and speed on the outside but both, particularly Sterling, are one footed. It didn’t make sense.
“In addition to receiving, both wingers drifted inside early in the build up which meant Rose and Walker progressed on Iceland’s full-backs. In fact, a lot of the time they were very deep which was strange given how effective Walker had been in previous games. It’s difficult to exploit any width from this point.
“The strategy made sense but there was absolutely no plan on how to execute it. Rashford on the right side and Sturridge on the left with good explosive timing from Rose and Walker underlapping and overlapping would have worked. One main method of beating the low block is runs inside from the full-back or outside if winger is inside. It needs players who can play incisive passes in between the lines to recognise the timing of the movement – Deli Alli and Wilshere are very capable of that.
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“The biggest reason for the failure unfortunately lies with the manager. You have to differentiate between the person and the manager. Hodgson is very respected, seems honest with integrity and doesn’t deserve the stick that’s coming his way. He did his best, he’s just not got what it takes at that level. Unfortunately this was clear when he managed Liverpool.
“A few years ago Hodgson took a coaching session at West Brom which all academy staff nationally were open to watch. His philosophy was to be reactive not proactive. His DNA is to get everyone behind the ball, be hard to break down and be effective in transition. He did incredible with Fulham in Europe with this strategy and he has had a successful career employing these methods.
“The session was at West Brom’s training ground and he worked for around 45 minutes tactically. Anytime his defenders tried to get control and dominate the ball, he hated it. Anytime players took risks with the ball he was on them straight away: ‘I don’t want you playing one twos on the edge of your box and losing it, kick it up to the front two and they’ll make something of it’. He praised full-backs who launched it aimlessly into the final third and every bit of his information was on the defensive side.
“Fast forward now to 2016. England play four teams who drop behind the ball into a low to medium block and they have to be proactive. They have 90 minutes to break them down. It’s not Hodgson’s DNA, it’s not his belief, and it’s not principles that he stands by. He’s worked for decades on mastering his beliefs and been successful doing it. But he was made to play proactively because of both the opponent’s strategy and the pressure from fans and media.
“Now you have a problem; he’s not an expert in it. And he’s operating at expert level in the most intense setting you can find. He would have had more success and been more comfortable dropping behind the ball and breaking through Vardy and Sturridge, but he couldn’t do that. He would have been torn apart. He would have been labelled as employing ’90s tactics. This was the main problem.
“Tactically England were awful. Yes they made mistakes defensively and yes they could have defended set pieces better. But ultimately, they faced a common problem which was ‘how do we break down a team that drops off?’ – and they had a leader who didn’t have the answers.”
How would you have setup against the opposition England faced and what do you think were the reasons for failure?
“If you take the principles of Dave Brailsford’s ‘Marginal Gains’, I am sure there are dozens of ways England could have improved their performances. All of the usual excuses have been flagged up this week; fatigue due to no winter break, wrong philosophies at academies, poor physical preparation, no win-loss competition at youth ages, and although I feel these are valid and do contribute, for me there was one major flaw: England got it wrong tactically.
“I think the principles are far more important than the system. England always had the initiative and were given control by every opposition. This meant the centre-backs often got near the halfway line with comfortable possession and at that point several things need to happen to give them the best chance of winning the game.
“Movement ahead of the ball has to be unpredictable, flexible and flowing. Players arriving in the spaces late to get turned and make the opposition face their own goal rather than circulating and bouncing in front of them. If you watch the game back, England’s players were continually in straight lines behind midfielders and not arriving in the spaces to support the ball carrier. It happened all game. Iceland were compact, and England’s centre-backs hardly ever played passes through the lines. Iceland wanted to show England wide and press from there and too often England obliged.
“If the movement structure is right then once players get turned they need relevant movement ahead of them. Who is running in behind, when, how and where? What’s the plan to penetrate? There are loads of ways of doing it depending on the profiles and opposition but principally this needs to be in the plan. Do we target specific areas or players of the opposition. Where are they weak? Where are our strengths in scoring? Do we have players that complement each other and can apply the style or do we just choose the biggest names at the biggest clubs?
“The attacking balance has to be good in order to retain the positioning on the pitch. For example, Germany frequently have two pivots under the ball ringing the box when they have the opposition in a block. This is to support circulation and always be an option, but also in a position to repress and retain territory – stopping any potential counter attack. Kroos is literally inch perfect in nearly every moment. This balance of repressing comes in the positions taken up with the ball – you’re thinking about defending when in possession. It’s a different concept and way of playing.
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“Germany’s attacking balance is different from Bayern’s but both do it equally as well. Centre-backs have to be organised the moment they are not needed in possession and the instance their midfield players get turned to face the oppositions goal, they step in the half aggressively with their positioning to really lock the opponent in. Ball watching rarely exists. Five metres makes a the world of difference.
“England had no plan in these moments. It’s down to the manager not the players. The manager is responsible for the structure and system, for the controlled movements and the attacking methods. Five of the starting team do it perfectly for Spurs every week so they know exactly how, but if every player isn’t working collectively on the style and understanding the individual responsibilities in the coordination then it won’t work. If players get beaten 1v1 then you can blame the individual but the manager orchestrates the flow and movements of the group. England were miles behind on this.
“Lastly, they lacked confidence. It was so evident. Players who take risks in the Premier League and frequently display spontaneous creativity, looked completely different players. They played safe, they took the easy option. It was evident in the opening game from the first minute. I have no idea why this happened or what caused it, but they played with no freedom.”
Do you think England managers tend to bow to the media by playing the media darlings to keep them on side? Every single England manager over the past two decades seems to make the same mistake; surely it can’t be a coincidence?
“I think they feel the pressure of the big tournaments and if they don’t start or select certain players, the media are just waiting to pounce. The England manager is put under the microscope like no other at tournaments and they often choose big names over players who are in form.
“Deschamps is one manager who doesn’t care. He had no problem dropping Pogba and Griezmann in the second game of a tournament that they were hosting. Think about the situation there, Pogba is the poster boy of the nation and regarded by many as a future Ballon d’Or winner. France were poor first game and the pressure was on. He did what he felt was best for the team. Hodgson would never have dropped Rooney, as an example, not a chance. ”
The media at the press conference seemed reluctant to ask about tactics. Why do you think this is? Are large parts of the English media too uneducated in this department?
“They don’t have the in-depth understanding of the tactics at that level. Unless it’s obvious, most don’t have the eye to recognise the minute details that are contributing. It’s much easier to blame other things and make scapegoats of specific people. It’s always the same. England have been tactically inept since Terry Venables.”
Is it now time the FA look at themselves for England failures? Are the managers they appointed perpetually misusing the players?
“The managers they have chosen have consistently been poor. In terms of the new manager, to me the profile you need is clear. England will continue to have elite players. Opposition nations will continue to drop behind the ball against England and they will have to break them down. Therefore, they need a manager who has knowledge and is an expert in facing this problem. They need to control and dictate teams. A manager who can also be creative tactically with flexible methods and is able to manage big players and choose what is best for the game; not who the media ask for and who is the most popular name. They have to be bold enough to take risks.
“The above reasons are exactly why Venables was successful. Personally, I like what Lauren Blanc did at PSG. He won the double in his first season, treble in his second and managed big players well. His style was clearly influenced by his playing time at Barcelona and his sides continually had the highest possession stats in Europe behind Barcelona. If it’s going to an Englishman, I’d give it to Eddie Howe and bring in an assistant who complements him. There are lots of valid reasons that make Howe a risk but safe, proven managers have consistently failed.”
By Sam McGuire. Follow @SamMcGuire90
With thanks to Tim Lees. Follow @timlees10