England’s Plan For Beating Portugal

By this point, very few people consider England as genuine contenders for joining Germany and Italy in the World Cup semi finals. And if that was a stretch, hardly anyone would consider the chance of England being in Berlin as being anything more than wishful thinking.

It’s not just that Scolari has masterminded two wins against Eriksson’s England in the last two quarter-finals they have played. It’s not that Eriksson is a mediocre (read bad) coach. Despite the encouraging remarks offered by German and Brazilians players about England’s chances towards the start of the World Cup, it is glaringly obvious that against quality opposition, England would have to raise their game by a considerable margin or be stuck with the tag of losing quarter-finalists.

One thing Eriksson can be commended on (although I doubt that it was deliberate on the Swede’s part) is that he has directed all attention towards himself. Have a problem with England’s tactics? Blast Eriksson. England playing bad? Blast Eriksson.

In short, Eriksson has been our punching bag (along with David Beckham, without whom England would not have reached the 2002 World Cup and could very well be out of this one as well by now).

The truth is that England, as players and as a team, have looked clueless and ineffective against ordinary opposition for the last four games. One can argue that France has done the same, but if you watched France play against Spain you would know that this was a team who was rediscovering their spark and were bound to give Brazil a very tough game.

Watching England vs Ecuador on the other hand was a bad experience – apart from Beckham’s free kick and Rooney’s renaissance in the last 20 minutes, England could very well have been a rich man’s version of Boro.

I’ve not given up on saying that England will win the World Cup. But to do so, they will have to make sure of a few things:

1. Don’t let Lampard take all the shots

Daniel Taylor from the Guardian has suggested that Lampard is either burnt out after a long, tough season (in which he played 58 games for club and country) or is depressed about missing out on a move to Barcelona. While I doubt the latter claim, what’s clear is that Lampard’s 21 shots (with 14 off-target) have gone to waste.

If England are to win, Lampard has to stick to making more passes (his pass completion rate is a mere 80%) and to shoot from within the box. It’s not easy, especially against Carvalho and Meira marshalling the defense expertly, but if England continue to give the ball away so cheaply in the final third they just as well might put all men behind the ball and wait for the penalties (or another Beckham masterclass).

2. Take the pressure off Rooney

The easiest way to get Rooney into scoring form and confidence is to make sure he gets goals. To make that happen, players such as Cole, Gerrard and Lampard will have to make the runs and attacks to draw away defenders from Rooney. I doubt that under Scolari Rooney will be unmarked, but even if he is up against a single attacker you could bet on Rooney beating him, getting the ball and then round the keeper for a goal.

3. Stop relying on Beckham

It seems strange for me to say it, but lately England have been relying too much on Beckham’s crosses and free kicks. Granted, they have allowed England to win their 3 World Cup matches to date, but sticking to that formula won’t work forever. England showed against Sweden in the first half that they can play attacking, passing football, and they should be playing the same way against Portugal as well.

4. Use the talents of each player

A striking example of this was in the Sweden game. Despite England playing so well, Beckham saw very little of the ball, and was thus taken out of the game. You can’t really play a good passing game without feeding the ball to your past passer / crosser.

The same goes for Hargreaves, Joe Cole and Rooney. Play them in their positions. Joe Cole likes to drift in, so Ashley Cole will have to double up and perform some winger duties as well. Rooney needs support to be truly effective, therefore the midfield will have to push forward and create space and opportunities for him.

5. When all else fails, play Beckham at right-back

Eriksson is not known to take risks, but at this stage he will need to make some serious changes. England go into the match with two natural wingers (Downing and Lennon) sitting on the bench. One of the reasons England has floundered so often is that because of Beckham playing on the right they can’t really attack with pace on that end. On the left, Cole has a tendency of drifting in, so his effectiveness as a winger is reduced as well.

One alternative is to drop Beckham. But that would deprive England of his passing ability, and to be fair no one else in the England setup can do his job.

So why not juggle things around and push Beckham into right-back towards the end of the match?

Doing this allows England to retain Beckham on the field while bringing one of Lennon, Crouch and Downing on the pitch. In all three scenarios, England’s team is a lot stronger in offense, and no matter what the scoreline is after 60 minutes, such a change will surely lead to England scoring at least once.

And for some Eriksson bashing (and an alternative view on England’s chances, read Myles Palmer’s article previewing the England-Portugal quarter-final clash. I’m sure he said it non-seriously, but he did say this (while talking about Eriksson):

“I don’t think he will win the World Cup, I never have done, and if he does win it I’ll give up talking about football as well as writing about it.”

I’ve promised some ‘special’ celebrations if England do win, so let’s see what happens today.

[tags]England, Portugal, 2006 World Cup[/tags]

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