Breaking down the international break

Well, England and the Netherlands, at least

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International break. People moan about the interruption to club football although that seems to have died down a little in England at the moment (I wonder why…).

In the full-time job at Football Whispers towers, international break, to me, is a mix of ‘there is a lack of content to write about, drat’ and ‘I have a weekend that doesn’t feel like work, yay’.

Enough about me though, there’s some bumper stuff to analyse. This week:

  • England’s opener vs the Czech Republic (an encapsulation of poor opposition)

  • Netherlands vs Germany analysis-fest

  • Brief mention of England conceding vs Montenegro

  • ‘Til the next time

England’s opener vs the Czech Republic (an encapsulation of poor opposition)

So, England are good now. This is like when you don’t watch a long-running TV show for a couple of years and then you come back and the villain-of-the-week from when you last watched is now a regular cast member with a complicated and nuanced backstory and is a relatively well-loved member of the show’s community. It’s disorientating and you’re expecting it all to come crashing down next week – if you keep tuning in, that is. Which you will, because now you’re hooked again.

I don’t think that the Czech Republic defended very well against England. They were pretty focussed on sticking with the man, but not enough that it was strict man-marking. England were on-form enough to pull them all over the place, and it all just looked like some playground ill-defined defensive system.

The first goal was a prime example of both of these things.

England had a goal kick on 22:40, Sterling scored 64 seconds later. Czechia didn’t look coherently set-up in defence at any point between those two timestamps.

The Czechs got the chance to get into a set shape when England nearly lost the ball at one point. By now, it’s just 30 seconds until Gareth Southgate’s team score.

Czechia are playing a deep 4-4-2, keeping it tight between their defence and midfield. You’d think that that’d mean England players wouldn’t get much space on the ball there. Hmm.

England moved the ball to the left, where two things become clear. Number one is that the Czechs are playing a man-orientated system while failing to stay close to their man. Number two is that their midfield don’t seem to know what they’re doing.

Raheem Sterling drops while Dele Alli moves forward. Their men follow them, but the Polish right-back never closes the gap that you can see above. When Sterling receives the ball in a second or so, he’s barely being pressured.

Across on the other side of the field, Czechia’s left side of midfield have barely moved across the field. That doesn’t immediately impact anything, but it means they’re further away from applying pressure to the England players most likely to receive the ball with the next couple of passes.

England work it a little more and Jordan Henderson passes it into Ross Barkley. Barkley, before receiving the pass, was being ‘man-marked’, supposedly. His marker, the left-sided central midfielder, is now a yard or two off him.

You can also see that I’ve put a question mark by the left-sided midfielder. What’s he doing? How is he contributing to the defence?

Is he covering any pass to Jadon Sancho out wide? Not really. Is he applying pressure to Barkley? Not really. Is he in a position to apply pressure to right-back Kyle Walker if the ball goes back there? Not really.

You could ask similar decisions of the left-back’s decision to move out to Sancho already, but I’m aware that this question might be driven too much by hindsight so I’m going to cautiously avoid it at the moment.

The ball gets played to Harry Kane, who immediately plays a perfect pass between the left centre-back and the left-back for Sancho to run onto. By this point, the Czechs have already shot themselves in the foot by being so bad, but their defenders still mess up.

The centre-back in the middle doesn’t realise that Sterling’s making a run until it’s too late, and his late burst of pace doesn’t make a difference. Sterling’s marker, who by this point isn’t keeping pace, decides to peel off into the middle of the box in case Sancho cuts the ball back.

England were good. Things look better when you’re playing against a mess though.

Netherlands vs Germany analysis-fest

There are three big things to touch on, all relating to the Netherlands.

The first is that the Dutch back-line was such a mess in the first half, best exemplified by this angle for Germany’s first goal. The defence looks uncannily like Harry Potter’s scar.

This brings me to the second thing, which is the switching of centre-backs Virgil van Dijk and Mathijs de Ligt at half-time. Van Dijk had started off on the right side of the pair, with De Ligt on the left.

After the break, De Ligt was on the left, which was the side Leroy Sane was on. I think this was the key thing.

Sane was pushing up quite a lot throughout the match. In the first half, that made Van Dijk retreat a little, rather than try and play him offside throughout large periods of the game. Whether the Liverpool centre-back didn’t communicate this or De Ligt didn’t notice it, the 19-year-old from Ajax stayed keeping a high line.

In the second half, whether through a natural inclination to drop off or because he was more aware of where his centre-back partner was, Van Dijk dropped off level with De Ligt. It helped.

The third thing is Van Dijk on Germany’s second goal. Let’s break it down.

The below snapshot is from a couple of seconds before Antonio Rudiger plays it in behind for Gnabry. There’s little pressure on the ball, and you can see the slightly wonkiness in the back-line again.

Because of the lack of pressure on the ball, trying to play offside probably isn’t the best option, as you’ve got less of a chance of being successful. De Ligt, the left centre-back circled, is still trying, and takes a step up as Rudiger is about to play the ball (below) despite the fact that Van Dijk is a couple of yards deeper.

The ball gets played over and Gnabry chases it into the channel. Van Dijk trots over.

I include the above mainly as a bridging image to the next one, where the ball is nearer the box, Gnabry has turned to face his body towards goal, and the gap is still noticeable.

Now, I don’t know what Van Dijk’s turning circle is like when he’s isolated and beaten one-on-one as wide on the pitch as Gnabry is. I’m assuming, given that the defender chooses not to rush out, that he’s not confident.

I’m not saying that this is the right decision, but I’m interesting in understanding why he made his decision.

From here, I think Van Dijk defended quite well. I’ve a friend who said in a group chat I’m in that Van Dijk defended well but the main mistake was allowing himself to be so close to his box when he was doing it, as it allowed Gnabry a sight at goal, and I agree with that.

Let’s zoom in on the one-on-one. Gnabry has two options: sprint down the line or cut inside. At some point he’s going to have to commit to one of them. Below, I’ve drawn onto the German those two options, as well as where his hips are facing.

What I want to draw attention to is the sharpness of the cut he’d have to make, which is almost completely ninety degrees. That angle’s only going to get sharper as the gap between them gets smaller too.

I’m perhaps giving Van Dijk a bit of the benefit of the doubt in this one-on-one because I know how well-balanced he is and how smooth his footwork is. That faith was proved to be correct though.

When Gnabry does eventually cut inside, Van Dijk’s turn is unbelievably fluid. Gnabry barely gains any ground at all.

Van Dijk managed to hold Gnabry up a little, although the German was able to cut inside into the box. It was still a difficult shooting position though.

Brief mention of England conceding vs Montenegro

England’s game has only just finished as I’ve been writing this and putting it together, so I don’t have time to get images. This will, then, rely fairly heavily on people having seen the goal in question, although I’ll try and describe it.

England had been pressing relatively high up the pitch, with the ball on the Montenegro right-hand side. It gets played long and diagonally, to the left where Montenegro have four players vs three England players in the immediate vicinity.

Callum Hudson-Odoi doesn’t go up for a header with the Montenegro player, which I think is his actual error. He looks like he’s trying to leave his body as an obstruction to get in the way of the Montenegro player’s jump, but has judged the trajectory of the ball wrong, and his body actually makes no difference.

Michael Keane then clambers around the Montenegro striker to try and get his head to the resulting loose ball. That he only managed to get a bit of a rubbish contact, taking the second ball to another Montenegro player, was probably an indication he misjudged the situation in committing himself to it.

It was here that Hudson-Odoi got criticised, as he didn’t react to the loose ball coming off Keane’s head. I don’t blame him, though. If you’re an attacker and you centre-back’s going for a ball, your instinct isn’t going to be to move closer towards your own goal to mark an opponent.

I’m assuming that Hudson-Odoi assumed Keane would get an actually good contact on the ball, potentially setting up something of a counter. He didn’t, Montenegro picked up the loose ball, muddled through, and scored.

An unplanned extra

Prompted in part by reports of racist abuse against England players at the Montenegro game, partly by other things, please listen to marginalised voices. Please look out for and listen to trans people, people of colour, people with disabilities, cis women, people who’ve grown up and/or are still in financial difficulty, people with different sexual preferences, people from working class backgrounds about how their lives are affected by political decisions and the rhetoric that comes from public figures and ordinary people.

If you don’t come from those backgrounds, you won’t understand them unless you listen. I speak from experience as someone who didn’t, and who had to - and is a better, or at least more aware, person for it.

‘Til the next time

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‘Til the next time