England took the trip across the continent to Bulgaria to face them in the Euro 2020 qualifiers of the Group A. Their previous meeting at Wembley last month ended in a 4-0 victory for England. In a game that was tainted by controversies off the pitch, there were still some tactics involved by both teams as we will see in the analysis of this game.
After a sub-par performance against Czech Republic that received widespread criticism, in this game, the fans were expecting a positive reaction from Gareth Southgate and his team. How successful was he in addressing the issues he faced in Prague? What changes did he make in his team selection and tactics? In this tactical analysis, we will examine them carefully.
Southgate’s gamble to start the youngsters Mason Mount and Jadon Sancho backfired against the Czech Republic, so in this game, he decided to have them on the bench. Declan Rice was rather lacklustre three days prior and demanding more from a single-pivot, England chose Harry Winks to fill in that role.
At the back, Harry Maguire was paired up with Tyrone Mings. Danny Rose was left out of this fixture after a poor run on Friday and Ben Chilwell operated along with Keiran Trippier as the fullbacks. In the midfield, the partnership between Jordan Henderson and Ross Barkley has shown a lot of consistency, so they were both chosen to start this fixture. Up top, it was Harry Kane with Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling as wingers.
Bulgaria lined up in a 5-4-1 with a back five of Georgi Pashov, Georgi Terziev, Kamen Hadziev, Petar Zanev with the midfielder Georgi Sarmov slotting between them. In the midfield, we saw Wanderson, Georgi Kostadinov, Ivelin Popov and Kiril Despodov in a line of four. Ismail Isa played as the lone striker for the hosts.
One of the key issues, when England faced the Czech Republic, was their inefficiency in their buildup. When they built up from a back-three with one holding midfielder, they often succumbed to a mid-press. Although Bulgaria were not the formidable opponents as the Czech Republic to compare the efficiency of England’s buildup, it is safe to say that the movement out from the back looked stronger and more positive.
A smooth buildup enabled England to have more stability in the middle third from where they could look to break down Bulgaria’s low block. Since Bulgaria operated with just one lone striker in the first half, it was easy for the central defenders to dribble out into spaces with Harry Winks playing as a deep pivot. In the beginning, Chilwell and Tripper would also invert and play in the half-spaces to support Winks while Rashford and Sterling stretched the width.
Another key element in England’s buildup was the effective positioning of Barkley and Henderson. Playing as box-to-box midfielders, they would position themselves between Bulgaria’s midfield line of four and defensive line of five. Rashford scored the opener for England, but we could see early on, the long ball played to the wide areas seeking Rashford. After playing such a long ball, England were also very proactive in attacking the second balls. The goal came as a result of Barkley winning the second ball and immediately playing it to Rashford.
England positional rotations
The most impressive tactic deployed by England was the dynamic rotations in the midfield and the flanks. In the attacking phase, the three aspects for an attacking team to capitalise on to recycle possession and constantly threaten the defence are width, penetration and cover. Since Bulgaria played with a very deep block, England were able to effectively utilise all three elements on both sides to draw them out and create chances.
The trio involved in these rotations were the full-back, the central midfielder and the winger. One of them would stretch the width drawing defenders wide with them. One of them would stay central and attack the inside corridor for any space behind the defensive line, and the other would stay close by to cover and recycle possession. In case of a turnover, Winks was always present to cover defensively along with Kane who would often drop deeper. They kept the passes short and quick. In this way, England managed to constantly move the ball and opponents subsequently with it.
The second goal for England came in this fashion with Sterling operating in the half-space on the right. This attracted defenders to him. Henderson also attacked the wide areas drawing defenders out of position. Sterling then used Kane in a give-and-go to attack the space behind and assisted Barkley who was quick to anticipate the chance being created.
Kane’s deep role
Kane is known to drop into midfield and participate in the buildup regularly with Tottenham. After the second goal, we saw similar behaviour from him. It was expected that after scoring two quick goals in under 20 minutes, Bulgaria would be forced to rethink their tactics. They pushed their defensive line higher and began to engage in a higher press.
In reaction to this attacking move, England adapted tactically by playing with two strikers in the form of Rashford and Sterling who pinned the defenders back in the inner corridors. The fullbacks Trippier and Chilwell were assigned to the flanks to provide width and push the Bulgaria midfielders behind. Kane dropped deep into midfield and engaged in the buildup with Winks looking for Henderson and Barkley.
The result of Kane dropping into midfield was that England were able to position their wingers high up as strikers without compromising on numerical equality in the centre. It was still a four v four density with Barkley, Henderson, Kane and Winks against Bulgaria’s midfield. This also allowed Barkley and Henderson a lot more positional freedom to operate and combine along with Kane. On attacking transitions, Kane had the liberty to push forward and join the attack in search of chances. This tactic enabled Kane to set up Barkley for the header to score England’s third goal.
During this game, Barkley played two successful long balls and one cross, scored two goals, had two successful dribble attempts, and won five out of eight duels. His anticipation of the game was phenomenal. He demonstrated an incredible ability to recognise a lucrative opportunity in the attack and find himself at the right place at the right time.
The header that he scored saw him make a run of more than 40 yards all the way into the box and get ahead of Sterling to win it. He was also able to play a big role defensively by supporting Winks in the buildup. This eased the pressure off Henderson to drop deep and Henderson was able to provide an equal attacking threat.
In this moment below we see Barkley recognising a situation to drop deep and receive a pass from the defence. With a half-turn in his body orientation, he is able to pick out Winks between two markers and immediately move forward asking for the return pass. In this way, he effectively beats three markers single-handedly with his movement.
If we take a look at Barkley’s heatmap we see that he operated mainly in the inside corridor on the right providing support to Winks, Kane and Rashford. But we also saw him score two goals because of picking the right moment to be present in the box. He averaged 24 out of 80 passes in the final third. His impact in this game was very evident.
Bulgaria’s defensive issues
Bulgaria had a lot of loopholes in their game, but we can highlight a couple of their major ones. The first was the lack of depth in possession. Although they operated with a back five, they were hardly dynamic in their movement. The lack of depth caused them a lot of problems as they were forced to play forwards all the time and eventually concede possession to England. In an instance early on in the game below we see Bulgaria winning possession of the ball in the midfield while England look to press high up to win it back. Instead of dropping deeper to offer passing options to maintain possession, the defenders are not proactive and are compelled to play the pass back to the keeper who has no choice but boot it back up the field.
After the second half, Sarmov was taken off for Kraev who offered a lot more threat with his technical ability in the middle. Bulgaria switched to a 4-3-3 formation to create more attacking chances. Although this compromised their safe approach with which they began the game, they were able to press higher and force England back. Despodov would cut inside and dribble while the captain Popov pushed up in search of goal-scoring opportunities.
The biggest shortcoming that England were able to exploit was the disorganisation in defensive phases. The defenders were easily drawn out of positions and lost their structure to England’s rotations. In an instance here below in a defensive transition, we see no real pressure on Rashford who cuts inside with a dribble while Chilwell overlaps him giving options. Kane is left completely unmarked and free to receive a pass in such a dangerous position. There was nobody to take responsibility at the back which justifies the imbalanced scoreline.
Bulgaria started off the game with a very conservative approach and only when the score started to mount in England’s favour, decided to come out and take risks. This did not work so well for them as England were able to exploit their defensive errors quite easily and punish them. They could have pressed England higher up from the beginning and attacked the spaces behind the fullbacks which would have forced a few of England’s players back. The result would have been an increased number of transitions and opportunities for both teams, but that would call for legitimate ‘home support’ they could have depended upon being the hosts.
It’s a stretch to say that England were genuinely tested by Bulgaria which leaves plenty of issues that the Three Lions encountered in Prague still unanswered before the Euros next year. We could see that Bulgaria pressing higher up did break up the buildup easily which was the big hurdle against the Czech Republic. Nevertheless, the score was a justified reaction from Southgate and his squad and the dynamic rotations and positional interchanges shown by this group of players boast a side with tremendous versatility.
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