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World Cup Thoughts: Day Six
Wales vs Iran, Qatar vs Senegal, Netherlands vs Ecuador, England vs USA
Hi, me again, another day of World Cup action, and another article of my fairly free-flowing thoughts. Considering over half of you, along with myself, live in either England or the United States, that’s inevitably the game I went longest on. In the spirit of generosity, I’ve made this one free to everyone.
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Wales 0-2 Iran
It took a while, but an actual football match broke out in this one.
Iran found a better balance in their tactical approach this time. Against England, they were incredibly passive for the opening period, and decided to go a bit more aggressive before England’s goals just took the game away from them. This time, they were still defensive but more on the front foot.
Both sides were cagey in the first half but Iran really stepped it up in the second. Wales were so passive, just happy to sit in and invite pressure. With the ball, they again had no real way of moving through the midfield and into attack. It’s a big problem that Aaron Ramsey looks like he can’t run anymore. Add in a 2016 version of Ramsey bursting a gut to get in the box and this is a different team.
Mehdi Taremi was a problem. Both Taremi and Gareth Bale each received eight progressive passes (per FBRef), but Taremi turned those into eight shot-creating actions to Bale’s two. The narrative around Wales has been that this is an emerging football force, but you look at those players and they look like they’re coming to the end. If Wales want to keep making a name for themselves, they’re going to need new star players to emerge from somewhere.
Iran have pushed themselves up to 58% to qualify from the group, according to FiveThirtyEight. I don’t love their methodology on this, but it’s clarifying. If Iran get a draw against the United States on Tuesday, they will be through as long as Wales don’t beat England. Knowing Carlos Queiroz’ track record, Iran could make that game one of the worst you’ve ever seen.
Wales now need a miracle, with FiveThirtyEight putting their chances at 5%. They need to beat England and hope for a draw between the US and Iran. Considering they’ve shown virtually no attacking intent in the two games so far, I’d say those chances are slim.
Qatar 1-3 Senegal
So, Qatar got knocked out. Please try to hold back the tears.
But they were actually ok in this game. Senegal scored their three goals through good finishing more than anything, creating a fair number of chances but none all that special.
I’ve been pretty disappointed in Senegal so far. This was a team that played Egypt off the park in both the AFCON final and the World Cup playoff. Here, they really struggled to create decent chances against Qatar. Is it all about Sadio Mané? I don’t think so. Senegal have the players to be better than this. They very likely need to beat Ecuador to make it through to the next round, and I’m just not confident based on what we’ve seen so far.
Netherlands 1-1 Ecuador
Speaking of a team that has disappointed!
The Netherlands were really bad against Ecuador. They blagged a point. They got their goal – a screamer from Cody Gakpo – then stopped playing.
Some of this was probably from Louis van Gaal’s instructions. He’s never been against slowly circulating the ball to kill a match. Some of it is about the quality of attackers. For the second game running, the front three just couldn’t get involved or show much understanding between each other. Even Gakpo, for his two goals in the tournament, hasn’t exactly been a consistent menace.
But that doesn’t explain the defensive collapse. The equaliser came from Ecuador nicking the ball pretty easily in midfield then launching a fast counter. The Netherlands are awfully soft at times. We know Teun Koopmeiners and Frenkie de Jong aren’t exactly N’Golo Kanté or Casemiro, but surely the point of playing three centre backs is to compensate for that thusly. The understanding between the three seems to be poor, and Nathan Aké played Enner Valencia onside as Virgil van Dijk was trying to hold a line. In trying to engineer a solution to the squad’s shortcomings, the Dutch got caught between the worst of all possible worlds in this game.
Fortunately for them, they’re pretty much through. Van Gaal has time to think of a solution to these problems. Ecuador meanwhile should be clear favourites to join them in the knockout stages. They’ve looked to have much more about them than Senegal so far.
England 0-0 United States
It’s funny how cyclical football tactics can be.
For a long time, almost every club in England played some version of a 4-4-2 system. That changed almost instantly when Chelsea hired José Mourinho in 2004. He saw a clear weakness in English football: space between the lines. He realised he could have a huge advantage against Premier League opponents just by playing a pure 4-3-3.
“If I have a triangle in midfield – Claude Makélélé behind and two others just in front – I will always have an advantage against a pure 4-4-2 where the central midfielders are side by side”, Mourinho explained. “That’s because I will always have an extra man.”1 Mourinho had legitimately stumped a lot of British managers with this change. Within a few years, everyone would be playing an extra man in midfield. It was the only way to control the space and avoid getting exposed between the lines.
And as everyone adapts, the space opens up differently. England played a fairly narrow 4-3-3 not totally unlike Mourinho’s first Chelsea side. Declan Rice was sitting at the base of midfield with the game in front of him, while Jude Bellingham and Mason Mount were box-to-box. Harry Kane was supposed to drop deep and create space for Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling to run into. It was all at angles and “between the lines”.
How did the USA stop it? By playing a 4-4-2, of course!
This was the kind of 4-4-2 where the space between the lines was nonexistent. They pressed in a mid-block but kept the gap from back to front as small as possible. They were compact and able to shut down a lot of England’s cute passing lanes. This probably caught Gareth Southgate off guard, as the US previously played a 4-3-3 shape. But what really frustrated was how he didn’t see the clear answer.
Every football team leaves space somewhere. Eleven players cannot cover every blade of grass at once. Against the US, the space was in the wide areas. Going to a 3-4-3 shape and pushing the wing-backs right up would’ve solved that problem. Even just telling Sterling and Saka to switch sides and hold a wide position would’ve helped. But it never happened. England’s subs were about trying ever harder to force a way through without looking at the obvious way around. Because there was no space through the areas England wanted to play, they ended up passing the ball across the backline more than anything else. They didn’t have a way of getting the players who could actually hurt the USA into the game.
I think Southgate suffers a tactical affliction shared by other English managers around his age (Frank Lampard and Eddie Howe are particularly bad offenders). They seem to believe that a back three is just automatically what you do when you want to play “more defensive”, and a 4-3-3 shape like this one is “more attacking”. But that’s not really true. Formations are neutral; players aren’t.2 Just as the Euro 2020 final was exactly the wrong time to switch to a 3-4-3 despite requiring a "defensive" approach, this game was the wrong one for the 4-3-3 even though England had to attack.
On the flip side, the United States really did a number on England. The front two of Timothy Weah and Haji Wright did a really good job of cutting off the centre backs’ passing lanes into midfield, forcing them to go wide instead. Again, this could be partially resolved by Southgate switching to a back three. If anything did break through, Tyler Adams was there to clean it up. They moved the ball quite well by getting it quickly up the pitch and having Christian Pulisic become a third attacker from left midfield. Yunus Musah was also a pretty decisive central midfield creator (which surely frustrated England staff who knew he nearly chose the Three Lions over the USMNT).
At the end of the day, we’re talking about a game without many chances. The game had about one expected goal in total between both teams combined. But the USA really nullified England with a pretty simple tactical tweak. They have the intelligent players to switch formations quickly and do this, but England really should’ve known better.
Cox, Michael (2017). The Mixer.