However outstanding the quality of their football may be, it is bound to take a long time before clubs as sugar-daddied as the newly-crowned Capital One Cup winners Manchester City enjoy anything more than a complicated relationship with the neutral supporter. But perhaps the greatest joy of this Premier League season, even beyond the unusual closeness of the title race itself, has been the flowering of four sides in the top half built upon the combination of intelligent long-term management – both on and off the pitch – and highly attractive football. No nouveau riche; simply new thrills, and enough of them to restore one’s faith in the English game.
The December meeting of two of this quartet, Arsenal versus Everton at the Emirates, remains the highlight match of the season to date for its sheer all-round quality over 90 minutes. But for about an hour at St. Mary’s on Saturday evening, the other two ran it close. Liverpool managed to assert control over the opening quarter-hour despite misfiring with the final pass; finally leading in slightly fortuitous fashion through Luis Suárez, but demonstrating such a repeated threat to the opposing high line that one could have foreseen a similar shellacking as endured at Anfield by both Gunners and Toffees. However, Southampton regained the initiative in magnificent fashion not through any particular change, but conversely a sustained conviction in their own style of play which overcame the initial wobbles to lay siege upon the visitors’ third.
It was frustrating for Mauricio Pochettino that, despite a 25-minute spell of enrapturing domination, his players should go no closer than an Adam Lallana shot which struck the foot of Simon Mignolet’s right-hand post. Yet it was typical of Liverpool to quickly seize upon space between the lines afforded by the Argentine’s half-time tactical adjustment and double their advantage via Raheem Sterling some 70 seconds after the teenager’s introduction. Three goals mustered from five shots on target was testament to the incredible potency of the Reds’ attacking players; a rare clean sheet for the defence surely a confidence boost ahead of ten games to chase the trophy.
The end result, 3-0, appeared one-sided. But the match reaffirmed the ability of both Liverpool and Southampton to lift fans and neutrals alike from their seats, and of particular excitement to the English observer is the local core around which such excellent football has been cultivated.
A deep malaise has surrounded the national team ever since the supposed Golden Generation failed to probe beyond three consecutive quarter-finals under Sven-Göran Eriksson and died an inglorious death in the Euro 2008 qualifiers with Steve McClaren. A couple of big wins over Croatia proved a false dawn as Fabio Capello lost faith in the tactical intelligence of Premier League winners denied the comfort blanket provided by foreign clubmates. The Italian’s emergency replacement, Roy Hodgson, did a good job in the circumstances at Euro 2012, albeit a tedious and defensive one. The sense that England are stuck in limbo between eras persists, and expectations had never been so low even before they were drawn alongside Italy and Uruguay for this summer’s World Cup.
Yet England need not necessary remain so rigid, so inferior. Liverpool have supplied five players to the squad that will face Denmark this Wednesday – the most, jointly with Manchester United, for any individual club. The Saints, meanwhile, count a record four. Though Hodgson is noted more for his emphasis on organisational drills, preparation time is at a premium in international football, and options are suddenly abound to revolutionise the Three Lions’ attacking play through direct importation.
Take, for example, the Liverpool sides that terrorised Everton and Arsenal in successive weeks a month ago. As is commonly the case with Hodgson’s England in bigger matches, the Reds fielded a relatively deep defensive line and registered significantly less than 50% of the overall possession. Yet the energetic pressing of their front five around halfway allowed Steven Gerrard to serve effectively as a midfield sweeper, collecting loose balls at the breakdown and rolling them quickly to Jordan Henderson or Philippe Coutinho, who would pierce the highly-drawn opposition defence at a single stroke with precise longitudinal passes to the onrushing Suárez, Sterling, or Daniel Sturridge.
Four of the half dozen players mentioned above are English and could be deployed identically in a 4-3-3, with little need for further tactical instruction, at Wembley. Obviously, England do not have a Suárez, but Wayne Rooney is our closest equivalent and could thrive if given the responsibility of fulfilling a similar role. Either Jack Wilshere or Southampton’s Lallana could compensate for Coutinho’s passing and technical ability in the midfield three. The injured Theo Walcott might have been an ideal upgrade for Sterling, who is raw so can fade from matches, but the likes of Jay Rodriguez or Andros Townsend can always deputise if necessary. Frank Lampard and Michael Carrick provide experienced alternatives for the Gerrard position, even if Hodgson should not need all three in Brazil.
As discussed previously on Foot! TUESDAY, Liverpool’s midfield arrangement can break down in matches where the onus is placed upon them to control possession, when there are fewer opportunities to counter from turnovers and Gerrard’s defensive shortcomings are exposed. In such cases, England could err more towards the Pochettino style and perhaps adopt a fluid 4-2-3-1 to press much higher up the pitch. Here, the tireless positional rotation – both with and without the ball – of Southampton’s front four could be replicated by any combination of Rooney, Sturridge, Sterling, Lallana, Rodriguez, and Rickie Lambert. Each offers sufficient versatility of position to ensure an exciting variety of options for the national team.
there is a clear difference between the two approaches, and the starting
positions upon which they are based, there is also a lot the Reds and Saints
have in common. The 4 P’s that Brendan Rodgers has emphasised since his Swansea
City days – possession, penetration, pressure, patience – can broadly be
applied to Pochettino’s Southampton as well. For Hodgson and England, perhaps
most important of all is the dexterity which the two sets of players share in
terms of adapting to tactical changes (Liverpool played a 4-4-2 diamond on
It may be alien for the 66-year-old to contemplate a line quite as high as José Fonte and Dejan Lovren were on Saturday, but at times a compromise will need to be found in order to break down weaker, deeper-sitting opponents. Phil Jagielka is certainly no stranger to passing out from the back at Everton, while Leighton Baines and Luke Shaw are ideal weapons on the overlap from left-back. The key to keeping the higher, 4-2-3-1 system together would be to ensure enough solidity at the base of midfield – in superb form this season at Goodison Park, a recall for Gareth Barry should supplement an area in which England have been lacking.
Things aren’t all bad in English football. Liverpool and Southampton – plus not forgetting Everton and Arsenal – have shown us so much. With few England managers ever having been under less pressure, it is time for Hodgson to get adventurous.