Glenn Moore: How England's pressing tactics frustrated Spain
Ten minutes into Saturday's match it looked as if Fabio Capello's masterplan to beat Spain consisted of lining nine men in front of Joe Hart's 18-yard box and hoping to nick something from a set-piece. As it turned out, England did just that, but as might be expected there was rather more sophistication to the Italian's tactics than this.
The obvious blueprint for England's victory was Switzerland's 1-0 defeat of Spain in the World Cup's group stages, but it seems Capello's Plan A was more akin to the way Paraguay played the quarter-final against Spain.
Post-match Capello's players said he had wanted England to press higher up the pitch – just as the South Americans (who lost to an 83rd-minute goal) had done, prompting Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque to note his players "suffered" when pressured.
Easier said than done. "The main objective was not to soak up pressure," said Joleon Lescott. "We wanted to press them high, but they are such a good team that sometimes you have to drop deep and be resilient."
Gareth Barry confirmed: "We worked a lot on pressing them, but for 90 minutes it is impossible to do. They keep the ball so well you are going to run out of steam in the end."
England were, indeed, hanging on at the end when, as at the beginning, they erected a wall of white shirts 20 yards from their own goal. In between, however, there were signs of what Capello had worked on.
While James Milner tracked Alvaro Arbeloa so assiduously he was for much of the time an auxiliary left-back, Theo Walcott did try and push on to the less experienced Jordi Alba. Neither, however, was able to get close to Darren Bent, who cut an isolated figure. Bent looked to drop back and link play, but lacked support.
Danny Welbeck, when he came on, instead worked the channels, aiming to relieve pressure by carrying the ball into Spanish territory. In the circumstances it was probably the best approach, but Bent's method might work better when Wayne Rooney, or Jack Wilshere, is playing.
In midfield Frank Lampard was deeper than expected, and Phil Jones more adventurous. It looked as if the latter had been told to break up the supply to Xavi and Andreas Iniesta from Gerard Pique, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets. That was an unhappy experiment, not least because Jones found himself in positions, such as the right wing, or breaking through midfield, in which he seemed uncomfortable. Behind him Scott Parker sought with more success to squeeze David Silva's space. It was one of the Manchester City player's least effective games of the season.
Parker and Lampard did try and pass the ball out. One move ended with Adam Johnson threatening on the right. However, as Parker said: "We struggled a bit to retain the ball, due to the fact we were working so hard to defend it that we didn't have the sharpness when we did get possession." This echoed the comment of Germany's Miroslav Klose after the World Cup semi-final: "When we did get the ball back we were exhausted from chasing it for so long."
"It's like playing Barcelona," said Frank Lampard. "If you try and play them at their own game, they are the best at it, and you probably lose. We retreated a bit and tried to use the counter-attack and we did it well. Ideally if we improve we won't defend so deep and will attack more."
That is the target for Capello. With Wilshere and Rooney restored it may be achievable.
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