World Cup Tactical Analysis: England vs Costa Rica


Roy Hodgson's determination to make sure all his outfielders got a game at the World Cup led to a strange compromise side, with at least two players not operating in their preferred positions. Quite apart from concerns about the integrity of the competition and what Uruguay and Italy might have made of the arrangement, the result was an ugly, disjointed performance, arguably England's worst of the World Cup, despite the result. Costa Rica, needing just a point to progress at the head of the group, seemed content to spend most of the game sitting deep; a tetchy, ugly draw perfectly acceptable to them.


Just as Oscar Tabarez exploited the weakness at the back of England's midfield by deploying Nicolas Lodeiro at the front of a diamond midfield and encouraging Edinson Cavani to drop back into that zone, so Jorge Luis Pinto had Randall Brenes, selected ahead of Christian Bolanos, who replaced him midway on the hour, drift off the left flank to try to get at the holding pair - this time Frank Lampard and Jack Wilshere, rather than Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson. Brenes caused rather fewer problems than Cavani had, although that perhaps says more about his ability than about any new-found solidity on the part of England. The back of midfield remains a major weakness, particularly if Hodgson is to stick with the 4-2-3-1.


There is something very strange about the widespread scepticism about Milner. He is not the greatest player in the world and lacks a certain flamboyance, but he is a good, solid player who is rather more technically accomplished than people give him credit for. Not only that, but he can play anywhere across midfield and even turned up at right-back in the pre-tournament friendly against Ecuador. It had seemed against Costa Rica that he might operate in central midfield in a 4-3-3, but Hodgson used him wide on the right where he was solid but unspectacular. The fear that England are just a team of yeoman strikers seems to have led to the opposite - a surfeit of style over substance. The issue really is one of balance, and it may be that Milner's lungs and discipline represent part of the future of the back of England's midfield.


So the Golden Generation had their golden farewell. Nothing so symbolised the culture of excess that has undermined the England national team over the past 15 years than the refusal of manager after manager to sacrifice a sacred cow to achieve a more coherent system. Gerrard and Lampard - it surely can surprise nobody to learn - are too similar to play together in a midfield two. The could play in a three, but that would have compromised Michael Owen, who had to have a strike partner, and David Beckham, if he wanted to play wide right. Now the issue is with Wayne Rooney, whose reluctance to play wide may be the reason Hodgson shied away from 4-3-3. And so England ended the 2014 World Cup as they started Euro 2004 - with Gerrard and Lampard together in the middle and Wayne Rooney just in front of them. Then, it was a symbol of over-exuberance and youthful hope; now it signified a lack of energy and inspiration.


Pinto played just as expected - a tight 5-4-1, with the involvement of Brenes the only attempt to tweak the system for England. It would be wrong to read too much into a game in which they were clearly quite happy with a 0-0, but you wonder just how much further the tactics of defending deep and playing long passes out to Joel Campbell can take them, particularly now others have seen first-hand how they play.


England, for the third game out of three, had more shots than their opponents and failed to win the game. After an edgy first 10-15 minutes they dominated but never mounted the sort of sustained pressure that might had led to them breaking down a deep-lying defence. There were promising performances from Luke Shaw in particular and, to a lesser extent, Ross Barkley and Daniel Sturridge, but this was a game devoid of real aggression or intensity, even if it did have a spiky 10-minute spell early in the second half. It was, in fact, just what you'd expect from a team that was already out against a team that was already through.

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