This World Cup has seen England prove itself in counterattacks and set-pieces. It even outperformed previous English sides in penalty shootouts. But the team is yet to show some vital possession skills.
A quick look at the second half of England's game against Tunisia would be enough to prove my argument. The Three Lions found many opportunities against a brave Tunisia side in the first half. But when Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul shifted back to a strict defending tactic in the second, it nearly cost England two crucial points.
Considering Sweden plays a similar game like Tunisia in the second half, England might fall into the same trap that already caught sides like Mexico and almost got Germany. To avoid that, coach Gareth Southgate must create clever set-piece strategies to quickly get behind the Swedish defense.
It is obvious that the game will be played in the Swedish half, but if England cannot find an early goal, the Swedes will focus solely on defending. This means that England's key players like Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli will not be able to find space inside the opponent's defense. The Tunisia game showed that Southgate did not have a reliable plan for this case and that is a problem. He pushed Ashley Young and Kieran Trippier deep into their opponent's wings, which was the right move to stretch the Tunisian defense. But he made a crucial mistake when he relied on crosses rather than using the space in the middle created by the stretch.
This was the fate of almost all teams playing a possession game in the World Cup. Rather than using the stretch in more efficiently, they merely kicked the ball into the penalty box. It is clear that panic crosses are not as reliable as pre-planned set-pieces which are aimed at utilizing the stretch.
To attack constantly and efficiently, you need to make sure that the ball is in your control, and crossing the ball is simply giving the opponent the opportunity of regaining possession. Because when the ball is in the air, it belongs to no one, it ceases to be under your control. That is why five men defenses have proved to be so effective in this tournament, when possession had no choice but to cross, all of its efficiency is diminished, and the attacking team instead becomes vulnerable to counterattacks.
Of course, I do not expect Southgate to create a Guardiola game in a matter of days, but it is evident that their possession game needs some smart touches. If I were him, I would train my side to shift wings with long-balls in the opponent's defense. While the rival defense is focused on one side and expects a cross, you could catch them off-guard by transitioning to the other wing with a long-ball. If you are going to cross anyways, fine, this will give you more chance since your opponent's defense will be more imbalanced. But you can also use this transition to create even more space in the middle since while your opponent will be transitioning, its defensive line will give you opportunities to directly pass into the penalty box. Nevertheless, Southgate's tactics could be different from mine, but it must also be different from his formula against Tunisia.
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