Matchday five in Euro Qualifying Group A saw England entertain Bulgaria in a one-sided affair at Wembley. The hosts of next year’s final continued to make the most of a kind group draw by taking their goal difference to +12 with another thumping victory. A third successive win for Gareth Southgate’s men sees them take top spot in the group as they cruise towards a comfortable qualification.
Southgate opted for a 4-3-3 shape using Declan Rice at the bottom of a midfield three containing Jordan Henderson and Ross Barkley. Michael Keane was given his eighth senior cap as he started in a centre-back pairing with the most expensive defender in the world, Harry Maguire. Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling offered the attacking threat, as they used their pace and movement off the flanks to support Harry Kane. Ex-club teammates Danny Rose and Keiran Trippier provided the width as they pushed forward in an attempt to stretch the opposition.
Bulgaria lined up in a rigid 5-4-1 formation, a shape they’ve used 17% of the time in the last calendar year. Krasimir Balakov instructed his side to defend tightly from a low block and look to transition quickly into attack as England encroached high up the field. The defensive shape didn’t save the away side from conceding, however, as England racked up a total xG of 3.36 despite the reduced space. Danger man and captain Ivelin Popov earned his 85th cap for the away side as he started in the centre of midfield. Marcelinho started as the lone striker, who had the difficult job of punishing England’s high line with his speed in behind.
England’s build-up vs the Bulgarian defence
There were no surprises for England when the Bulgarians sat deep into their defensive shape from the outset. The challenge for the Three Lions was always going to be around breaking down the rigid structure.
The home side were afforded plenty of time and space on the ball in their build-up play as Bulgaria opted to defend the space rather than press aggressively. The visitors condensed the vertical spaces between the midfield and the back five to congest the space in the central zones. This sacrificed space in the less dangerous wider areas and protected the core of the defensive unit.
Another tactic employed by the Balkan nation to keep England out of the dangerous central zones was their use of the central midfielders. As you can see above when the English ball rotations entered their half and the central zone, one central midfielder broke from the organised defensive line to press the ball-player. The lone striker who also defended narrow pressed in conjunction with the midfielder to force England out of the central zones and into the wide areas. As a result, 78% of England’s attacks came from the left or right-wing.
England had to be patient and move the ball quickly in their rotations. They managed a total of 765 short passes in the game, with an average pass streak of nine passes per possession.
To stretch their opponents England pushed their full-backs high and wide. Rose and Trippier were heavily involved in the build-up, having 106 and 126 touches respectively and providing a total of six crosses.
The full-backs positioning assisted England’s build-up play using Rashford and Sterling, who played closer to Kane in a more narrow front three. As you can see above the advancing movement from Tripper as England are in possession forces the Bulgarian line to retreat. This defensive movement enlarged the space between the lines, which allowed Rashford to drop into and pick up the ball in plenty of space, as you can see below.
Rashford was able to pick up the ball in these dangerous areas as the Bulgarian centre-backs were reluctant to step out and mark the England forward, in fear of leaving exploitable spaces in behind. As a result, Rashford and Sterling managed a total of six shots between them achieving an xG of 0.92.
Despite their dominance in the game, England will be wary of the chances they conceded against an average Bulgarian side. The away team achieved an xG of 0.51 despite only having 38% possession and making 292 passes.
On the rare occasion when it was required, England opted to defend aggressively. Their passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA) was 7.19, compared to the Bulgarian’s figure of 95.75. This, however, caused them some defensive issues.
Above, you can see Bulgaria in a spell of possession. England’s midfield three is in position with Rice occupying the holding role. Trippier and Maguire are aggressive in their marking, moving tight to their opponents.
As the pass is played backwards by Bulgaria, England maintain their aggression and Rice moves out from his holding role to press the man receiving the pass. This level of aggression is a positive play, however, if unsuccessful it can leave spaces in behind the lines, leaving the defence exposed.
This is the case below, as the ball is played through the English midfield and into the space vacated by Rice. The attack ended in a shot at goal, which against better opposition, could have been finished off.
Though defending aggressively isn’t necessarily the wrong tactic against weaker opposition, England need to be better drilled in timing the press to avoid being left vulnerable. Rice pressing too late and therefore not arriving into the tackle on his opponent’s first touch, offered too much time on the ball which was used to pick out a progressive pass.
England’s defensive movements were also a concern in these moments as they were not harmonious with the midfield press. As Rice and the England midfielders pressed the ball, England’s back four didn’t move forward to condense the space and squeeze Bulgaria out of possession. Instead, they dropped deeper, moving away from the protection of their midfield, which opened the spaces for Bulgaria in between the lines.
In this instance, a more passive approach using good defensive positioning would have yielded a recovery without conceding a shot on goal. England need to be mindful that gifting space to any opponent is asking for trouble.
Having played five games and only amassed two points, Bulgaria’s campaign is coming to a disappointing end. They won’t enjoy the result but will be pleased with their performance against the toughest team in the group. Every game is a must-win now for the Bulgarians if they want to play any part in the tournament next year.
England fans will be pleased to see their team win in another resounding victory in the group stages. Qualifying though has never been a problem for the English, who often enter tournaments untested at the highest level. Southgate will have seen things he liked and disliked in equal measure, and will be keen to iron out the defensive frailties this analysis has identified. Despite being largely untested, the easier group has allowed Southgate to experiment and bleed new talent into the group. This provides England with tactical solutions for when problems inevitably arise on the big stage.
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