When England beat Spain on Saturday, they also defeated probability itself.
It defies logic to go into a game, enjoy so little possession, have so few shots on goal, and still win. Certainly it relies on that most elusive of assets – luck.
England enjoyed the luck on Saturday. Another aspect of luck was the performance of Darren Bent. As has been largely noted, strikers like him are a dying breed at international level. Few teams can afford or get away with having a forward who solely hangs around the penalty area for a half chance – but Bent can do little other than that, and has limited technique and other qualities. On Saturday, he can barely have got into double figures in terms of chances, yet got his head to a free kick which bounced fortuitously into Frank Lampard’s path.
Yet England won 1-0, with all the statistical probabilities flying out of the window and Spain left to contemplate that football is not a game of probability.
There were positives defensively, that cannot be in doubt. Tactical organisation was the call of the day and England showed surprising tactical nous, though this was undoubtedly aided by the loss of Steven Gerrard and John Terry. They represent the previous generation of players, individuals rather than team stars, with a lack of tactical know how and a desire to be everywhere at once.
Scott Parker, who was immense and colossal at the back, linked well with Frank Lampard, one of the few Englishman from the last generation to actually have tactical intelligence, as well as Phil Jones, who made an impressive debut. The three screened the area where Xavi and Andres Iniesta roam, closing down the space, and effectively were a defensive midfield trio, flanked by Theo Walcott and James Milner, who dutifully teamed up with Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole to prevent Spain getting any width.
On those few occasions when England had the ball, it was swiftly lost. This was because there were usually only three players in an advanced position to pass to; Milner, Walcott and Bent. And all three were outnumbered when they had the ball, and without options in the attacking third. They were never going to keep the ball for long. Bent’s selection was understandable because he doesn’t drop back looking for the ball, and therefore kept Spain’s defensive partnership, Sergio Ramos and Carles Puyol, from pushing up to squeeze the play as Barcelona do.
But out numbered in the Spanish half, this was a pitiful display from an attacking perspective. Football is not just about the defensive. On Saturday England played as if the game was solely a defensive one, and got lucky with a free kick. To win a competition, you need to have attacking strategies as well, and England won’t be able to play with three defensive midfielders in every match. The chances of going through six games next summer without conceding playing as England did on Saturday are remote.
One problem with defensive play is you can’t afford to make mistakes. If your entire strategy is about defending one error could cost you, and almost did for England on Saturday. But if your strategy is attacking you can afford to make mistakes going forward. You can mis place a number of passes but as long as some go right, then it won’t cost you.
If England play Spain next summer, they cannot play like this again. Next time they must commit more players to attack. And when you have the ball against Spain, it is pointless to pass it forward quickly, as England tend to. If you only have two or three men in the opposition’s half, you will lose it. But if you pass it around patiently at the back, then you have a greater chance, as your players can get into the opponent’s half, keep the ball, and most crucially, force the opponents deeper. This is what Spain and Barcelona do so well. Cynics sometimes say they pass the ball with no purpose, or that they are ‘going nowhere.’ People who say this misunderstand the whole point of their play.
By passing the ball from side to side, forward and then back to defenders, Spain and Barcelona move their defensive line higher up the pitch. The opponent’s might protest they are going nowhere, but actually, they are moving closer and closer towards your goal. All of them, too, not just four or five. It is classic team play.
So England can revel in this win, but if they do not adapt and develop a coherent attacking strategy, they will fail next summer.