World Cup qualifiers: Four tactical conclusions

Posted by Michael Cox

Italy, Netherlands, Argentina, USA and Costa Rica all secured their qualification for the 2014 World Cup this week, joining Japan, Iran, Australia and hosts Brazil at next summer's finals. However, plenty of big nations struggled and we probably learnt more from their failings than other sides' successes.

Here are four conclusions from the recent internationals.

Steven Gerrard can only play as the holding midfielder when England are on the front foot

Steven Gerrard battle England v Ukraine
GettyImagesEngland captain Steven Gerrard is better uttilised further forward against bigger teams.

In the easy 4-0 victory over Moldova on Friday night, Steven Gerrard was the perfect man to play at the base of England's midfield triangle. He could sit deeper than Frank Lampard and Jack Wilshere and put in a tackle on the rare occasions Moldova threatened to counterattack, but primarily focused on distributing the ball efficiently into the final third. He also came up with a superb, swerving drive in off the post to give England the lead.

However, the situation changed away in Ukraine, when England spent the majority of the time without the ball. When forced to concentrate upon defending, Gerrard is poor positionally in that holding role -- straying too far from his centre-backs, and getting dragged towards opponents unnecessarily. There was one moment during the second half that summed it up -- Ukraine hit a long ball towards striker Roman Zozulya, who attempted to knock it back for attacking midfielder Roman Bezus.

In the end, Zozulya was correctly punished for handball, but it was bizarre to see Gerrard casually wandering back, fully 25 yards ahead of his centre-backs. Bezus was, as the attacking midfielder, broadly the man Gerrard should have been tracking -- if not literally marking him, certainly keeping the distance between himself and the defence to a minimum. It was a common problem throughout the game, and England would have been punished against better opposition.

It's easy to feel sorry for Gerrard – now 33, with more than 100 caps and the captain's armband -- yet not being played in his best position. At Liverpool he's adapted admirably to a deeper role, but has the protection of Lucas Leiva alongside him. Gerrard is not a Lucas -- and it's increasingly difficult to understand why Michael Carrick isn't used in that deep role, with Gerrard pushed slightly higher up.

France should base their side around Mathieu Valbuena

Mathieu Valbuena and Didier Deschamps
GettyImagesDidier Deschamps has come to recognise the creative importance of Marseille's Mathieu Valbuena.

Undecided about whether to start Olivier Giroud or Karim Benzema up front against Georgia on Friday night, Didier Deschamps eventually took the easy option and fielded both together. France were dreadful for the first 70 minutes, lacking creativity in central positions, and outnumbered in midfield with Georgia the dominant side for long stretches. Tornike Okriashvili hit the post when he should have converted a rebound from his own shot -- had that gone in, it wouldn't have been against the run of play.

France only played good football in the final 20 minutes, and inevitably it was le petit velo, Mathieu Valbuena, who got them going. He had a good curled attempt from the inside-left channel, played a superb cross for Giroud who produced a poor header, then hit a magnificent long pass over the top that the Arsenal striker couldn't quite control.

For the trip to Belarus last night, Deschamps rightly dropped Benzema and brought in Dimitri Payet on the right, turning France into a 4-2-3-1 with Valbuena moved centrally. After Franck Ribery scored France's first goal from the penalty spot, Valbuena was involved in the other three goals -- crossing for Ribery to convert at the far post, knocking the ball back to Samir Nasri to fire in from distance, then crossing superbly to create a goalmouth scramble eventually ended by Paul Pogba poking the ball in.

Deschamps hasn't always been a Valbuena fan; he attempted to sell him immediately after taking charge of Marseille, but eventually became convinced of his talents, first at club and now international level. Now he must play Valbuena in his preferred central role in order to get the best out of him, and to get the best out of others.

Uruguay are better without Diego Forlan

Oscar Tabarez has experienced the same problem for a while -- how to incorporate Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan in the same team. A 4-3-3 system vaguely makes sense, although all three prefer playing in central positions, and the most obvious candidate to play out wide, Suarez, has been by far the most prolific for the national team over the past two years.

Diego Forlan chase Uruguay
GettyImagesUruguay flourished against Peru after Diego Forlan went off injured.

Forlan was voted the best player at the last World Cup in 2010, but has been a fading force since then. His confidence has dipped, and his goal-scoring record has frequently been dreadful at club level. He's still a Uruguayan legend and a valuable, experienced member of the squad as the only centurion in the country's history -- but it's becoming increasingly difficult to see how he deserves his place in the side.

In Saturday's 2-1 victory in Peru, Uruguay seemed to improve once Forlan limped off injured, and was replaced by Espanyol's Christian Stuani, a player more accustomed to playing wide, therefore allowing Suarez and Cavani more freedom. The Liverpool man scored both goals, taking him clear of Forlan as Uruguay's all-time top goal scorer, with 38.

That feels rather symbolic at this time, and with Forlan not fit enough to return against Colombia last night, Uruguay again thrived. Cavani seemed the more likely goal scorer throughout the contest, and while Tabarez again needed to use his bench and introduce Stuani, Uruguay performed well.

Cavani and Stuani eventually grabbed the two crucial goals to lift Uruguay into fifth place in the
CONMEBOL qualification table. Their next game, away in Paraguay, seems like a play-off for the fourth and final automatic qualification spot -- it would be a surprise to see Forlan start.

Bosnia need more structure against big sides

Bosnia and Herzegovina are one of Europe's most underrated sides. In the past two qualification campaigns, for World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012, they've been desperately unlucky to have drawn Portugal at the play-off stage. They would have been favourites against almost any other possible opponents, and wouldn't have looked out of place at the tournaments.

Bosnia's qualification was running extremely smoothly until this week -- they'd won every game aside from a good draw away at second-placed Greece, and were one of the top goal scorers in UEFA qualification.
They have benefited from a particularly easy group, however, with Lithuania, Latvia and Liechtenstein all lacklustre also-rans, with only Greece and Slovakia worthy of much attention. This week, Bosnia faced Slovakia in back-to-back encounters, and struggled -- losing 1-0 at home before a late turnaround in Slovakia resulted in a narrow 2-1 victory.

At home they conceded from a set piece but had looked more vulnerable to counterattacks -- it was a brilliant goal on the break by Marek Hamsik that opened them up in the away fixture. Only a set piece and a superb long-range strike from Izet Hajrovic secured the points.

Bosnia Safet Susic player viewing
GettyImagesBosnia coach Safet Susic likes throwing caution to the wind.

Coach Safet Susic is incredibly open, both in his tactical approach and his evaluation of that tactical approach. "We have two top strikers in Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic, a couple of very creative but also attack-minded midfielders like Zvjezdan Misimovic and Miralem Pjanic, then Senad Lulic, Sejad Salihovic and Mensur Mujdza. We have to play like we do," he told World Soccer this month. "It may sound tactically immature ... but it would be unfair to the fans, to the game and to us if we were to suppress such a skill."

It's a refreshing attitude, but Susic shouldn't get carried away by his successes against the three minnows in his group. If Bosnia reach the World Cup, the side must play with more structure.

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