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Posts Tagged ‘Rooney’

Notes On England

Posted by Seamus Walsh on June 19, 2010

Seeing as I’m English, and there is still a chance South Korea could have to play England in the Quarter Finals of the World Cup, I thought I’d offer some thoughts on their absolutely abysmal start to this competition.

England manager Fabio Capello has done well in general. As he said when he first came into the job in 2008, his biggest and most important task was to restore some confidence to the players, and he managed to do that during the World Cup qualifiers. England scored a lot of goals, although they never looked as comfortable on the ball as the top sides – but then again no England side ever has over the last few decades. It did seem, however, that Capello’s England was a lot stronger then any England side had been in a long time.

England looked vibrant and impressive in the qualifiers

Part of the problems that we’ve now seen emerging in this World Cup, however, seems to be that England have a team full of players who are outstanding as one-man footballing weapons. For their clubs the other players get the ball to them, they do something special. They’re the pinnacles for their respective clubs, but put them together and they seem to cancel each other out. They need a few more players who do the simple things very well, players who can control, pass and move at pace and with accuracy.

Despite that, should it really be beyond players who have done the amazing things we’ve seen from them for their clubs, fitting brilliantly into their teams, to pass the ball accurately to each other? They absolutely have to be able to keep the ball and move the opposition around the pitch a bit. They do not need to look to make the killer ball every time they win possession.

On top of that, the final few warm up friendlies before the start of the tournament were pretty abysmal. With those performances against Mexico, Japan and the local South African side Platinum Stars, all of the confidence that Capello had rebuilt during qualification was lost. That just showed how fragile it must have been, and I’m not sure Capello could have known that would be the case. Perhaps he should have just played the same team that played so regularly in the qualifiers – more of the same – and perhaps the team would not have been the one everyone else seems to want to pick (Gerrard behind Rooney), but if they could have carried on from where they left off then the players would surely not have diminished once again to the fragile shadows of their regular selves that we’re seeing now.

The performance and the body language was very different from England against Algeria

Also, it might perhaps have been wise to have used players who were in good form for their clubs during the season when they first started demonstrating that form. When goalkeeper Joe Hart was playing regularly and well for Birmingham, he could have been introduced to the national team then and there. If he’d have played well there’d be no dispute over the first choice goalkeeper up to and even during the World Cup. Darren Bent is another example. People criticise him for his apparent poor form for England, but how many chances has he had? Heskey, Crouch and Defoe have all had plenty of opportunities to play and train with Rooney. Bent has only been given 6 caps for England, and he’s been thrown in and expected to reproduce his goal-scoring club form. Surprisingly, he hasn’t. If he’d been included at least in the squad from an earlier stage when he was consistently scoring in the league then perhaps he’d be better able to reproduce at England level and form a decent partnership based on some mutual understanding with Rooney.

Capello has made his choices, however, and fiercely defended them. Now he has his hardest ever choice to make – stick or twist. He’d built up this England team from nervous, underperforming individuals into a confident, goal scoring team. His formation and player/squad selections had, until recently, performed as required virtually faultlessly. It all came tumbling down in the warm up friendlies – not against the US or Algeria – and now he has to react.

Does he persist with the selections of formation and lineup that had previously served him well or change his ways, going against everything he’s argued for up until now. In making that decision I hope he takes into account the fact that the clubs England’s best players play for have altered their formations to correspond to developments across the global game. With Barcelona being so successful with their flowing passing style and (formerly) rather rare 4-3-3 formation, and Europe’s other great sides following suit with lone strikers and versatile attacking wide men, the likes of Rooney, Gerrard, Lampard and even Lennon have found their niche at club level.

Rooney had an outstanding season as a lone striker for Manchester United

Ferguson decided Rooney was best suited to being played as a lone front man being supported by a hard-working creator behind him and pacy wingers providing constant crosses and options when Rooney has to hold up the ball. Gerrard became that hard-working creator behind a lone front man at Liverpool, and Lampard did something similar, linking Chelsea’s midfield with their striker(s). The only person who as yet does not seem to have reacted to these international developments is Capello. How many teams play 4-4-2 these days? Admittedly, it suits some teams, but how many of the teams doing best so far at the World Cup or in Europe this season play such a formation? I would say none.

Capello should be brave now. Things change, in football as in everything else, and Capello should not feel that he has to live and die by his choices made previously. They served him well at the time. He should now accept that he must live and die by his decisions in the moment. If he decides to change things now, does he look weak? Does the image of authority and serene intelligence and tactical know-how slip if he decides to change a team that’s playing itself out of the World Cup? No. It would be far braver and I argue far more intelligent for him to alter his formation and tactics, to free up England’s best attacking players to play the way they do naturally, as they do for their clubs. There are some outstanding players in the squad, they don’t need to be shackled by rigid tactics and tactical commitments that they are not used to and that go against their natural inclinations. Moreover, if he is convinced that Gerrard and Lampard cannot both play together centrally for England (I see no reason why that would be the case based on recent performances when they have done so) then he always has the option to drop one of them.

One thing that stands out about Capello’s approach to the England job so far has been his conservatism. He’s picked an incredibly experienced and, let’s face it, old squad for this tournament. And yet there is no great lack of talented younger players in England. Perhaps some of those players, James Milner, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Ashley Young, Tom Huddlestone, Micah Richards, Lee Cattermole, Michael Dawson, Adam Johnson, Joe Hart, Darren Bent and so on should have been given more opportunities earlier on. Those among them who have played have had few chances, but have always looked promising, passionate and hungry. They haven’t been tainted by the apparent failures of past campaigns, they all play fantastically well for their clubs. Most importantly, perhaps, the likes of Algeria, Mexico and Chile have all shown in this World Cup that you don’t need the most famous stars playing in order to be successful. Also, for Germany their young playmaker Mesut Ozil is not the most well-known player in the squad but he has so far been the best, Elia has done similar for the Netherlands and Navas for Spain. Perhaps Capello should have given far more opportunities to these sorts of young, hungry players to show that they can be better for the team than the famous individual stars.

One final point that seems to have surfaced since the start of the World Cup is that the England camp does not appear to be entirely harmonious. Capello has been acting even more brusquely and evasively than usual in his interviews, he’s shouted at the media, the players were angered on safari and now David James – one of only two England players along with Ashley Cole to have not played badly against Algeria – appears to have confirmed that the players are not completely happy with Capello’s methods and approach. If I was to guess at what exactly they are unhappy with I would say the formation, as discussed above, as well as the fact that Capello only names his starting lineup two hours before kickoff. It’s an unusual ploy, and one that seems to be backfiring.

Time for change. A change in formation, but also a change from the players. I’ve questioned some of Capello’s decisions here, and his lack of decision following poor warm up friendlies and opening games in the World Cup, but nothing can hide the fact that it was the players who underperformed on the pitch. Capello has a fantastic record as a manager, but it is the English players playing for England in the end who have to improve every facet of their mentality and their performance following the Algeria game.

Posted in World Cup | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Park Ji-Sung’s Best Position

Posted by Seamus Walsh on April 2, 2010

Something I’ve written about before on this blog is how Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has begun to deploy Park Ji-sung as a supporting forward to Wayne Rooney in the centre of the United attack this season. The most recent example of this was the match last week against Liverpool, which United won 2-1 thanks to a brave second half diving headed winner by Park himself (Highlights). The other recent occasion when Ferguson decided to play Park just behind Rooney was in the second leg against AC Milan in the Champions League, a match in which Park also scored to help United to a 4-0 win.

Ji-Sung Park heads United into the lead

Park scores the vital winner against Liverpool

Park may be more used to playing on the wing for United – the position he has played almost exclusively – but Huh Jung-moo the South Korean national team manager has played him centrally before. It’s clear that in these two examples where Park has played just behind Rooney recently he played superbly, adding the final missing ingredient to his game – goals. So what is his best position?

Well, I think a lot of this depends on the situation. With the squad Manchester United currently have I believe that they play their best football as a team when Park is playing centrally with Rooney. On the other hand, however, I think the opposite is true for the South Korean national team: they are at their collective best with Park out wide. I’ll now outline why I think these different strategies are right for each team, and also why it seems to be now that Park has become so important to both.

Firstly, Manchester United. The easiest and most practical way to analyse the strengths of a football team is to look at their results. Winning and scoring are good, losing and conceding are bad – simple. This week United played a crucial Champions League Quarter Final first leg away at Bayern Munich. It was always likely to be a tough match, as Bayern have strong players in all positions, and some incredible attacking talent. I believe it was the concern over what the likes of Franck Ribery could do in front of their home fans that led to Ferguson’s decision to play three more conventional central midfielders, with Park on the left and Nani on the right, and Rooney alone up front. With Rooney in the team United are always likely to score, which they did, naturally enough through Rooney early on. The five man midfield, therefore, was designed to protect the defense and to keep the attacking players of Bayern at bay, with Nani the best attacking outlet of the midfield five with his pace and directness down the wing.

This, however, was not to be enough in either attack or defense, and where I think Ferguson went wrong (Very rarely will I ever criticise Alex Ferguson) in this instance was to play Park on the left, leaving Valencia on the bench, and with three central midfielders. Scholes, Carrick and Fletcher are all fine footballers, but now that Scholes is no longer able to get forward at every opportunity to support the striker(s), all three of them tend to play very deep. This gave Bayern far too much possession, and they eventually made United pay, scoring the winner in the last seconds of the match. Once United did get hold of the ball they had no creative outlet, no way of breaking through the Bayern defense and getting the ball to Rooney in a goal-scoring opportunity. None of the midfielders looked like they were willing to run ahead of the others and support Rooney down the middle. This meant that they were only left with two options to get the ball forward. Either Nani had to dribble the ball up the pitch on his own and try and find Rooney in the box, or they had to start playing long balls and hope they caught the defense in a lapse of concentration. Neither of these tactics worked.

Had Ferguson decided to play with only two central midfielders, Fletcher and Carrick for example, with the pace and skill of Nani and Valencia on the wings and Park supporting Rooney up front, things might have been different. In this setup, Rooney is the focus of the attack, but Park provides another attacking option for the midfielders to pass to. He creates space with his runs, and adds another “layer” if you like to the United attack, which means they don’t have to resort to just punting the ball from defense to the other end of the pitch to create an attack. Also, Valencia offers more pace on the wing than Park, which can really stretch the opposition defence, again leaving more space for Park and Rooney to take advantage of in the middle.

This is why I consider Park’s best position for Manchester United at the moment to be in a central attacking position in support of Rooney. For the South Korean national team however, Park has to play a very different role for them to be successful in my eyes. The foremost reason is that south Korea do not and probably should not play with a lone striker, as Manchester United do with Rooney. I’ve written about the strengths of Park Chu-young before, but I do feel that he needs a partner up front to be at his best. Very few international sides would risk playing with a back three in this day and age, and South Korea certainly should never consider this, especially not considering their World Cup group, which leaves them with four in midfield.

Park and Rooney have complemented each other well in attack this season

The national side’s biggest strengths are their organisation and teamwork, but I would also add to that their playing style. South Korea like to play a short, fast passing game at high speed, relying on their fitness and dynamism to make up for the fact that they are often on average smaller than most sides they come up against. A key aspect of playing like this is stretching your opposition as much as possible, creating space for other players to run into and wearing out your opposition quicker. To do this a team has to play with two excellent wingers. In my view, South Korea only really has two players capable of doing this out wide: Lee Chung-yong and Park Ji-sung. Therefore, when Park is played centrally Korea lose one of their best assets.

Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the reasoning of playing your best player centrally so that they get the ball more, but this just won’t work for Korea. Firstly, without two quick, capable wide men the middle of the pitch becomes more crowded, which means Park wouldn’t get as much of the ball as hoped, and he’d have less time to do anything with it. Park is not the most creative player, that’s just not his game. With him on one wing and Lee Chung-yong on the other, however, things are very different. Korea have options to each side, they make the most of the whole area of the pitch, making things harder for the defending team, and there’s more space in the middle for Ki Sung-yeung to be creative – which is his natural game, and for Park Chu-young to drop deeper and evade his markers to make things happen in the danger areas.

So, we have to sides to Park’s game, and his ability to adapt to both teams and formations is what makes him so valuable to both his club and his country. He enables both teams to play their best all-round game. He may not get the most credit for his performances, but his tactical awareness, work rate and ability mean that when he is used properly, both teams he’s part of perform better, score more and get better results.

Posted in European football, Manchester United, Park Ji-sung | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »