As you might have witnessed here at The Shin Guardian, we’re poised for, preparing for and downright giddy about a singular date: June 12th.
We don’t eschew speaking about the other United States group stage opponents so much as relate ad nauseum to the opening battle because of the familiarity and relevancy of the players and various subplots as many Americans now compete in the EPL, matching up head-to-head against their forthcoming World Cup opponents.
In that spirit–and with just a short two months until the battle–TSG takes a deeper dive into the game. We do this now primarily so that the community can interact and debate the event, but also follow the critical players in club ball that will compete therein.
So today, we’ve got a doozy and a double dose. I’ve asked England fan and TSG contributor “GeorgeCross” and USA fan and TSG contributor “Tuesday” to guide us through the two teams from strengths and weakness to play their best Fabio Capello and Bob Bradley respectively and break down the key tactical battles.
Part I is issued this morning, jumping into the overview and players. Part II will be issues later today and delve–primitive illustrations and all–into the on-field chess game.
Thanks guys and here we go…. Tuesday, Part I, you’re first:
England’s Starting Eleven and Tactical Mindset
England’s staring 11 is full of stars, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t missing a couple of key ingredients that tend to be imported by the best sides in the Premier League.
Does this mean the side will add up to less than the sum of its parts? Sometimes having too many of “the best” players can be to a team’s detriment since the many of them find the systems of their clubs are built around them – a luxury few players can have at this level. England have a knack of nervy starts to tournaments so I think it’s good luck that we’re playing them in the first match.
England seem to be missing that one technical player in midfield that ties everything together so last World Cup they got a Canadian to do the job. Without a fit Owen Hargreaves, England have no proper holding player to provide defensive cover and set the tempo at the base of midfield. Frank Lampard sometimes manages to set the tempo, but sometimes doesn’t. As Jose Mourinho noted when guiding Inter over his former club, and Barcelona found before him, Lampard needs space to thrive, but wilts in the heat of close attention. Though Barry is a good midfield player, he’s more in the Mike Bradley mold than a true holding player – the defensive steal of De Jong and Van Bommel is not something you’ll find at the base of England’s midfield.
Along the back four, England have their own questions. Will Ashley Cole be fit? He and Rooney are the two English players who truly contend among the all-world first-team. Cole is the key player that turns England from a quarterfinalist into a serious contender so his recovery is essential to England making a late run in the Big Cup. His absence makes England’s attacking far more predictable since he provides the wide threat on the left flank essential to the balance of Capello’s asymmetrical 4-2-3-1.
At right back, Glen Johnson’s loves to get involved in the attack, and presents a real danger on the overlap but his defensive positioning can be questionable and he tends to get caught upfield. Can Capello reign in his attacking instincts? John Terry is always willing to put his body at risk, but never seems the commanding figure he does at Chelsea in an England shirt. Ferdinand has sometimes been prone to lapses of concentration of Borsteinian dimensions along with patchy fitness.
With no true holding player, two attacking fullbacks, and a pair of central defenders in Ferdinand and Terry that aren’t the fleetest of mind and foot, respectively, England’s vulnerability is to the sort of swift counterattacks that have become a US trademark. In addition, the onus in this match will fall disproportionately on England, giving the US the chance to turn that fact to their advantage. If the US can apply high pressure to Lampard and the English fullbacks, England may find it difficult to find penetrative possession and play the ball backwards to cycle possession to the back four. The US should shorten the game by simply conceding possession to England deep in their own half.
Do the US have any players who would start for England?
If I were Capello and I could do a couple no-questions-asked swaps of allegiance at the last minute, would I take any of the American players over my own?
To start with the easy one, I would take Howard over whoever England will stick in Net. I would also take Guzan, permanently understudy to the ageless Brad Friedel at Aston Villa, over England’s options. James? Green? Foster? Hart? Uh… No thanks. If I were to invent a Goalkeeping VORP stat based entirely on my own non-scientific whim, Tim Howard is generally worth as much as 2 goals per game over the average replacement goalkeeper. Guzan, in precious few minutes, has shown he is capable of the same level of heroics as Howard.
I would take Donovan over Walcott. Seriously. Donovan is the more seasoned and has been a remarkably consistent play from a position known for patchy form. He excelled during his loan spell at Everton, leading them to the highest points total in the league over the term of his loan. It was enough to catch the eye of someone at Chelsea, though Donovan was also quick to master another English art-form: badge kissing.
On this seasons form alone, I would take Dempsey over Gerrard. Seriously, there’s a reason behind those “Dempsey to Liverpool” rumors that pain me so much to hear. Gerrard has had an indifferent season and doesn’t always show up for England, even though Capello has them playing a system that papers over his tactical deficiencies. Rooney has far more tactical discipline than Gerrard, which is one reason why you’ll find them swapping places in England’s attacking midfield trident.
And finally, though GeorgeCross will have my hide for saying this, if, as England manager, I were as intent on a surprise inclusion of Svenian proportions to keep the punters guessing, I would take Altidore over Heskey. They’re at very different places along the arc of their careers. One is clearly on the up and up and troubling the best defenders in the Premier League with man-of-the-match displays for a club flirting with relegation. The other is third in minutes up front for his club, ensconced comfortably in the final European slot. There’s a reason behind the whispers of Zamora for England.
Beyond the Starting Eleven
England have an advantage here, but it’s not too great an advantage. Defoe and Crouch are both solid substitutes that present Capello with diverse tactical options to change the style of the attack. In midfield, with Beckham out and Lennon doubtful on the right, it’s likely to be Shaun Wright-Phillips relieving. Wright-Phillips can be dangerous but often lacks the final ball and hasn’t returned to the form which saw him score 10 goals for Manchester City 6 seasons ago.
James Milner has excelled for Aston Villa this season and presents the option of returning to a more traditional 4-4-2. Joe Cole, who seems to make a team play better even when he isn’t, is always capable of creating something though he has yet to find form. Defensively, England’s options are all a step down from their starters and include Spector’s West Ham team-mate Matthew Upson.
While they aren’t all Premier League starters, the US do have good quality players they can bring on to freshen up the side and change system if needed: As they recover fitness from their injuries, Holden and Davies would seem most likely to appear as a substitutes.
Beasley showed there’s still something in the tank, though like Wright-Phillips, his salad days seem to be behind him. Bedoya, a possible wildcard to make the squad, showed in Amsterdam that he can positively impact a match against top-level competition.
With Bocanegra likely to start at left back, there are tactical options available in defense with Cherudolo, Pearce and Bornstein. Though Bradley will likely start with two defensive midfielders, he has a solid attacking option in Feilhaber, who can play centrally or link play from the left. If Jones adds himself to the mix, this US team has enough depth to provide for solid options off the bench.
Okay “GeorgeCross”…you’re up:
Well, I’m going to let Tuesday have the first say here and offer up a breakdown in list style and attempt to counterattack on him in the tactical section. So….
Wayne Rooney’s form – he’s playing like a “No. 9 ½”
Frank Lampard’s timing
Goal scoring midfielders – team not reliant on one player for goals. WCQ GFA 3.4
High tempo game / pressing high up the pitch
Ferdinand and Terry’s balance
Set piece offense
Champion’s League experience
Johnson’s positioning / inability to cut crosses out
Wayne Rooney’s value to the England team
Defensive concentration – inability to keep a clean sheet
Off field issues
Expectation, pressure and scrutiny having not won since 1966
Landon Donovan’s pace
Clint Dempsey’s timing
Physically strong team
Putting planks of wood on the side of station-wagons
Tim Howard and Landon Donovan’s value to the U.S. team
Left back spot
Ball retention / cheap turnovers
Defensive concentration – inability to keep a clean sheet
Lack of squad depth / options from the bench to change game
Pressure / inexperience/ stage fright – first WC for many players
There are obviously hundreds of possible scenarios (or ‘plays’ as you Americans like to call it) that can occur out on the pitch, and it is almost impossible to summarise every single one. However, I have tried to capture the most likely ones given the teams’ strengths and weaknesses and their general modus operandi under Bradley and Capello.
As Cole and Davies are running now, I have taken the liberty in assuming that they will be fit in 10 weeks.
Part II…..coming shortly….
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