Friday, September 7, 2012
MOLDOVA 0-5 ENGLAND
Something similar was also something very different. England's most emphatic win under Roy Hodgson was secured with a flourish as a team who had played without the ball in the summer prospered with it.
But it began with a throwback. While Hodgson revisited England's history by pairing Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in the centre of midfield, he also revived a tactic from the recent past. His starting line-up and system were reminiscent of the side selected for the 1-1 draw against France at Euro 2012.
In midfield, James Milner, Steven Gerrard and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all began in the same positions in another 4-4-1-1 formation. The difference came partly in the scoreline and the standard of the opposition, but also in the other three men occupying the midfield and forward positions who influenced the style of play.
Lampard, injured in June, came in for Scott Parker, injured now. The Chelsea player's brace were the first goals scored by a central midfielder in Hodgson's reign and, if the first came from the penalty spot, the second was more telling. Until now, the manager has deployed two holding players. Whether because of Moldova's limitations or Lampard's attacking inclinations - his second goal was headed in from eight yards in open play - this was a sign he was granted greater freedom. Alongside him, however, Gerrard - the most attacking of three central midfielders for Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool - was the least attacking for England.
But the pivotal player tactically was Tom Cleverley. When Ashley Young operated behind Danny Welbeck against France, he was almost a second striker. Cleverley was more of a fifth midfielder and thus a better bridge between the midfield and the forward line. It was a subtle alteration - perhaps only five yards in their starting positions - but that, along with Cleverley's willingness to drop deeper, enabled him to become more involved than the isolated Young was against the French and provide cover when Lampard went forward.
Indeed, the more direct veteran ran ahead him to score. With more of a roving brief and able to rotate, Cleverley also helped make England less rigid. Their greater fluidity was also apparent for the third and fourth goals; first Oxlade-Chamberlain, the left winger, popped up on the right to set up Jermain Defoe for his goal. Then, with Cleverley the left of a trio in the Moldova box, Milner, who had moved to the left, arrived centrally to drive in the fourth, patient passing also showing their ability to interchange positions.
The choice of Defoe instead of Welbeck as the sole striker, the third significant switch, also affected the approach. With a diminutive forward, it was notable that he first two crosses of note were low; the first, when Cleverley's shot hit Semion Bulgaru's hand, resulted in the penalty, and the second should have brought another goal, Defoe sidefooting wide. As well as the height of the crosses, the area they came from is also instructive - most, including Glen Johnson's ball for Lampard's headed goal, came from infield positions. As in Euro 2012, England's wide men were actually quite narrow. Sometimes that allowed the full-backs to run outside them, but often it was simply a sign of Hodgson's preference for a compact side.
England's final formation was a curious footnote. With John Terry limping off after all three substitutions had been made, Michael Carrick ended the game at centre-back, with Cleverley alongside Lampard in a 4-4-1 system. Carrick, touted as England's answer to Andrea Pirlo, has actually spent the majority of this embryonic season in defence.
RUSSIA 2-0 NORTHERN IRELAND
Fabio Capello's appointment as Russia manager brought discussions about the size of his salary rather than the tactics of his team. Rather than his system, personnel and policy decisions garnered attention when the Italian named his first squad as he omitted foreign-based players including captain Andrey Arshavin.
And yet, as one era began, it was how another ended. That was partly because, as he had in Euro 2012, Alexander Kerzhahov kept missing chances - in itself, testament to his ability to find space - but largely because Capello stuck with the Dutch-influenced 4-3-3 his predecessor, Dick Advocaat has used.
In one respect, this wasn't a surprise. While Capello has been associated with 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 for much of his managerial career and won Serie A with Roma playing 3-4-1-2, he used 4-3-3 when England qualified for Euro 2012.
But this was a very familiar formation for Russia. Once again, the front trio were notable for their movement - Kerzhakov's was superb, even if his finishing was not - and he sometimes dropped off, sometimes ran in the channels and sometimes appeared as typical No. 9.
The opening goal was typical of Russia. Alan Dzagoev, nominally the right of the front trio, appeared in the hole to send Kerzhakov clear on the right. His cutback was swept in by Victor Fayzulin, making the kind of well-timed run from deep that Igor Denisov often does. The second goal, while scored by Shirokov from the penalty spot and coming about through a contentious decision, followed a similar burst into the box from Alexander Kokorin, Dzagoev's replacement and showed the merits of having runners arrive at pace.
Meanwhile, the ability of Denisov, Fayzulin, Kerzhakov and, in particular, Dzagoev to appear behind the lines meant that, while Northern Ireland played 4-1-4-1 with Chris Baird as a defensive midfielder, Russia could swamp that area while Michael O'Neill's side retained an organised back four, who did not want to be drawn out.
While Aleksandr Aniukov was advanced less than usual on the right, the attack-minded Dmitry Kombarov stood in for the injured Yuri Zhirkov on the left as Russia relied on their full-backs for width. This, too, is nothing new. This was their approach under both Guus Hiddink and then Advocaat - Russia relied on their attacking full-backs for width. Now Capello is following suit. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?