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27 Jun 2018

England Tactical Analysis: Beating Belgium would be the conclusion of a long period of development

REUTERS/Anton Vaganov

One perspective with which you can examine the history of a sport is through gamesmanship. 

Often the chronological development of a sport can be traced through the gradual Overton Window shift of what makes for acceptable behaviour.

Football, as one of the world’s oldest sports, has plenty of examples.

Football’s first ever official international football match, between England and Scotland, was a controversial one. Scotland’s decision to pass the ball from player to player, in lieu of an athletic advantage, was viewed paramount to cheating, or at least, ungentlemanly, by the English in 1872.

It’s a simplification but Catenaccio could be viewed through this lens too; as the decision to swallow pride for the sake of glory and have a ‘big club’ behave on the pitch as if they were a ‘small club’.

For better or worse the modern game sees the slow, steady creep of acceptance for diving, time-wasting and deliberately seeking to have an opposition player sent off all mark the passage of time.

Should this trend continue, then deliberately conspiring to lose the final group stage game in a World Cup in order to enter the weaker side of the draw may well become the norm, even the expected. 

Two sides in a play-off for second place could lead to a comedy of intentional own goals and keeping the ball for the wrong reasons. But, as of June 2018, that does not appear to be the case.

Small signs of progress

Take England, for example: a nation whose traditionalism and hyper-masculinity have slowed the development of their national side for, at least, the past decade.

Last week, we looked at how England have, through various means, developed a way of overcoming the defensive opposition low-block. 

REUTERS/Matthew Childs

England went on to tick several more boxes against Panama. Although their creation from open play wasn’t outstanding, they did demonstrate a variety of set-piece routines - maybe more then they would like to have made public by this stage.

We also saw a positive performance from Ruben Loftus-Cheek who replaced the injured Dele Alli. This switch allowed Gareth Southgate to stagger his midfield three as England blurred between the 3-4-3 and 3-5-2.

The Belgian Test

As the rounds progress, though, this lock-picking skillset becomes less of a need. From here on in, England will come across teams who fancy themselves for their ability on the ball.

Belgium are such a side. In fact, Roberto Martinez, the Belgium manager, is something of a possession fanatic. As a result, this match presents itself as an opportunity for England to test their ability to adapt to a style of play in which they have a more even share of the ball.