England were far too tentative but USA’s defensive shape locked them out


This is analysis of England’s draw with the United States — in two parts.

The first part looks at England’s meek approach to the game.

The second looks at how the US shut them out.

Michael Cox and John Muller provide their take on a 0-0 draw that puts England on the brink of the last 16. For the US, everything is still riding on the final game against Iran

England were far too tentative

Cox: It was a scene familiar to anyone who watched England’s goalless draw with Scotland at Wembley last year. The second game of the group, England in control having won their opener, and entirely happy to settle for a point against opposition they should really have attempted to beat. A point isn’t a bad result for England, but it was a performance that underlined the limitations of this side, and of Southgate too.

Arguably the three major positive features of England’s display against Iran in their opening fixture were all seriously lacking here.

Jude Bellingham, outstanding four days ago, had a difficult match here, particularly off the ball when he seemed unsure how to press.

The full-backs, who made inroads against a narrow Iran side, were considerably more cautious here, holding their position almost permanently — again, a key feature of that game against Scotland.

Most obviously, the tempo of England’s passing was dreadfully slow. They started surprisingly quickly against Iran, but here were content to slowly knock the ball across the defence, barely penetrating the back four.

If the early stages were about a lack of ambition, however, that gave way to a lack of quality. England were not entirely in control of this game, and were forced to withstand periods of long pressure from the US. Perhaps Berhalter’s side lacked the incision to turn pressure into clear-cut chances, and England were completely dominant inside their own box. But England shouldn’t have been on the back foot for such long periods.

A common theme of Southgate’s tenure has been his inability to react when the opposition change shape — that was particularly the case in the semi-final defeat to Croatia four years ago, and to a certain extent against Italy in last year’s Euro 2020 final.

The exception here was that the USA’s change of shape actually came from the outset, more 4-4-2 or 4-2-2-2 than 4-3-3. Weston McKennie moved out to the right, Timothy Weah looked like more of a second striker than a right-winger. England’s area of advantage was, at least in theory, in the centre of midfield, but they failed to exploit that. Mason Mount was uncharacteristically unable to find space, in part because of the superb Tyler Adams.

But Southgate’s reluctance to react wasn’t simply about a lack of tactical ingenuity, it was also a sign of his contentment with the situation. Even a tactical luddite could look around and think that one of Phil Foden, Jack Grealish or Conor Gallagher as a replacement for one of the three attacking midfielders could offer something different without necessitating a change of shape. But Southgate waited until gone 65 minutes to introduce anything new, despite England looking increasingly troubled.

Southgate knows how tournaments are usually won — with a good defensive record. That necessitates some level of caution. England reached the semi-final four years ago with a similar approach.

But much has changed since then. England weren’t able to call on the likes of Mount, Saka, Foden, Grealish or Gallagher in 2018. There is a new generation of exciting talent, and while supporters often want a manager to be more attack-minded than is logical, there was surely a good argument for being bolder, or at least trying different options early on.

United States’ defensive shape locked them out

Muller: If the United States’ first 45 minutes of the World Cup against Wales tested whether they could disorganize the opponent with the ball and the second 45 minutes was a pop quiz on transitions, this game was always going to be a final exam on holding their defensive shape against England’s build-up.

Neither side came into this match with much to play for. After the first round of the group stage, FiveThirtyEight’s model gave England a 93 per cent chance of advancing to the next round, compared to 45 per cent for the United States. After a scoreless draw, it’s 99 per cent for England and 38 per cent for the US, who have exactly the same mandate as before: beat Iran to go through to the knockouts.

It made for a cagey game. England dominated possession for long stretches but were more than happy to pass the ball around the back, while the US sat off in a 4-4-2 mid-block in defence: two tight banks of four defenders midway up the pitch, with a pair of forwards cutting off the lanes from England’s centre-backs to Declan Rice and Bellingham in the middle.

England occasionally managed to move the ball upfield through their full-backs, Shaw and Trippier, but struggled to progress through midfield or find their free-floating attacking midfielder, Mount. Even when Harry Kane dropped into midfield, which he does a lot, England couldn’t find many gaps between the Americans’ hyperactive defensive pair of Adams and Yunus Musah in the middle.

The free radicals in the United States’ atomic structure were Christian Pulisic, who had license to push up on the left side of the defensive 4-4-2 to join the front line in applying pressure in a more familiar 4-3-3 when the moment felt right, and McKennie, who was given similar freedom up the right wing in possession.

McKennie’s freestyling was more productive. Like at Juventus, he often looked less like a central midfielder than a floating right wing-back, getting up and down the sideline and occasionally crashing the box while Tim Weah, the right winger, tucked inside to play closer to the striker Haji Wright on the counter.

One of the United States’ best chances came in the 27th minute when McKennie started an attack on the right wing and then slipped inside to get on the end of the cross around the penalty spot. The ball bounced just in front of him and he skied the shot.

Another chance came a minute later, when McKennie dribbled up the right sideline and into the middle of the attacking third, made an off-ball run on the left side of the box and helped set up a shot for Musah.

A few minutes later it was McKennie again, pirouetting around Mount to take off on a counter up the right wing that ended with Pulisic firing a weak-footed shot off the crossbar. Between minutes 15 and 45, the United States were unquestionably the better team.

Things settled down after half-time, as the United States were content to let Adams lead a defensive unit that held fast at the top of the box and kept England — who, again, had no reason to take risks — from creating much from the wings. By stoppage time both teams were openly playing for the scoreless draw, which all but puts England through and keeps the United States’ hopes alive in the third round of the group stage.

After 92 years of World Cups, the United States has beaten England once, drawn twice and never lost. That’s a good enough result for now.

(Photo: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)


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